Time to the Rescue of Failing Papers?

The temptation is irresistible to begin any commentary on Walter Isaacson’s piece in Time — “How To Save Your Newspaper: A Modest Proposal” — by observing that Time itself looks more in need of saving than even newspapers that symbolize the industry’s troubles, like the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times, both of which dropped pretty hefty packages on my doorstep Sunday.

By E&P’s count Time sold all of 14 pages of ads in the slim issue. Alan Jacobson of Brass Tacks Design puts it nicely at his blog with a trenchant piece that is far more worthy to be at the center of industry debate than Isaacson’s sort of obvious observations: “But its ‘Modest Proposal’ is delivered in a form that is remarkably modest itself — its 56 pages are barely thick enough to shim a coffee table, let alone support an entire industry.”

Likewise, Isaacson’s piece runs to 2,200 words, but could be reduced a haiku:

Free is bad, immoral, too.
Advertisers are danger,
Charge readers with EZ Pass!

It also appeared, free, online a full day before the print issue went on sale in New York and several days before subscribers got it.

The former Time managing editor, who is now president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, clearly understands the consequences of the newspaper industry’s failure so far to successfully transition to digital delivery. And he openly acknowledges he’s part of the problem: “Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to The New York Times, because if it doesn’t see fit to charge for its content, I’d feel like a fool paying for it.”

Isaacson thinks he should pay for reading the Times online, and his solution is one that’s gaining a lot of traction, in that everyone-talks-about-the-weather-but-no-one-does-anything-about-it sense of traction. Isaacson would like to see a non-clunky form of micropayments. Not a subscription model, but a seamless technology collecting tiny fees like EZ Pass collects payments for toll roads.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but as pointed out by other commentators such as Jacobson, Mark Potts of the Recovering Journalist blog and, perhaps most impressively, Alan Mutter in Reflections of a Newsosaur, the bigger problem is not so much that people aren’t paying for online newspaper content now — it’s that a huge and important part of the audience, the young and Web-savvy, simply are not coming to newspaper sites.

Says Mutter: “The reason young people don’t gravitate to newspaper websites is that most sites are more newspaper than web: staid, static and largely un-interactive. In other words, 1995-style shovelware won’t cut it.”

Isaacson notes that online ad revenue actually declined at many chains last year, but doesn’t seem curious about why that might be.

In his recent four-part examination of the industry, Mutter challenge the conventional wisdom of the digerati that newspapers should abandon print altogether. The future of print gets surprisingly little discussion in Isaacson’s Time opus. Perhaps that’s because he’s uncomfortable with the very idea of advertising being the primary revenue source for newspapers.

He essentially dismisses the idea of going to free print or online publication, sharing with Henry Luce what he calls Time magazine’s founder’s disdain for publications that rely only on ad revenue. That’s “morally abhorrent” and “economically self-defeating,” he quotes Luce as saying, because a publication should put its readers first. If readers are not kicking in some money, “eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue,” Isaacson writes.

The wonder, I guess, is that newspapers have made it this far, considering that forever and ever among paid newspapers, circulation revenue rarely has accounted for more than 20 percent of any paper’s total revenue.

Isaacson suggests that free online sites, like the free publications Luce decried, “make a publication completely beholden to its advertisers.” That will be news to alternative newsweeklies that produced some of the hardest-hitting journalism in their communities while collecting not a dime from their readers.

“Your newspaper” won’t be saved unless it can figure out both the print and online pieces of the puzzle, and Isaacson has essentially nothing helpful to say about print.

But the appearance of the Time cover story has usefully stirred up the already urgent discussion about the future of newspapers. If the blogs responding to the story are putting forth sharper insights and more actionable advice than Isaacson himself, well, that’s all to the good, too.

And no matter what position industry insiders and outsiders take on his Modest Proposal, I hope Isaacson proves to be exactly on target with this prediction:

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, Dr. Johnson said, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. Journalism’s fortnight is upon us, and I suspect that 2009 will be remembered as the year news organizations realized that further rounds of cost-cutting would not stave off the hangman.”

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