But good news for consumers and trees in the long run. I think. Newspapers and print journalism is no longer sustainable. Even the lie the newspapers are sustainable isn’t sustainable.
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.
Then a Facebook update from Mashable sent me to Martin Langeveld’s speculative number crunching: Paying for online news: Sorry, but the math just doesn’t work.
He starts by quoting Rupert Murdoch, then the American Journalism Review. A few paragraphs of numbers later, and the world looks like a bleak place for daily pulp. Langeveld isn’t cocksure, but even his concession is persuasive:
Granted, [these numbers] come from the top of my head. If you disagree, make your own assumptions; the math is simple. We don’t have a lot of real-world before-and-after figures from news sites that have imposed fees. But we know, for example, that the New York Times’s 2005-2007 Times Select experiment drew 227,000 paying customers at an average of about $3.70 a month (based on reported revenue of $10 million a year), at a time when the Times’s free content was drawing 13 million unique visitors a month — a conversion rate of less than 2 percent.
It’s a little scary. I love the morning paper. I love the smudge of ink on my fingers. I love the simple portability of print.
But I also love the beautiful meritocracy of the web.
What else can I say? We all want to change the world.
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