Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future (Excerpt)

Published on February 8, 2012
by Richard J. Tofel

Maybe the extinction of newspapers was inevitable once digital publishing moved from proprietary services (which provided access to their own limited content, such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL) and the slow speeds of dial-up delivery to the open access of the worldwide Web and the possibilities of much faster broadband (the larger the bandwidth, the greater the speed and thus ease of delivery, and the higher the resulting traffic).

But maybe not. Michael Crichton, for instance, had insisted in 1993 that “what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace.” Crichton, of course, wrote “Jurassic Park,” so we must defer to him on dinosaur expertise. But he was far wide of the mark on the extinction of mass media, so perhaps his vision about newspapers in particular was also flawed.

A hint of where Crichton’s vision went wrong can likely be found in the same speech, where he said this:

“More and more, people understand that they pay for information. Online databases charge by the minute. As the link between payment and information becomes more explicit, consumers will naturally want better information. They’ll demand it, and they’ll be willing to pay for it. There is going to be — I would argue there already is — a market for extremely high-quality information. …”

But that’s not what happened, at least outside of trade publishing (industry newspapers, magazines, and newsletters). The closed online services of the 1980s (CompuServe had started its service in 1979) and early 1990s, with their usage fees, gave way in the mid and late 1990s to the open Web. Prodigy, which already in 1991 boasted a million members, was sold at a billion-dollar loss in May 1996, just 18 months after the release of the test version of the Netscape Navigator browser.

And notions of what consumers would pay for — and what they should even be asked to pay for — were turned on their heads. By early 1996 the media theorist (and former Grateful Dead lyricist) John Perry Barlow was writing in Wired that the optimal price for information in many cases was … free. “Most soft goods,” Barlow declared, “increase in value as they become more common. Familiarity is an important asset in the world of information. It may often be true that the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away.”

And that is precisely what newspaper publishers and others fairly quickly sought to do.

The rest of this e-essay is available on iTunes.

Richard Tofel is general manager of ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom. At ProPublica, he has responsibility for all of its non-journalism operations, including communications, legal, development, finance and budgeting, and human resources. He was formerly the assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal and, earlier, an assistant managing editor of the paper; vice president, corporate communications for Dow Jones & Company; and an assistant general counsel of Dow Jones.

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