Can journalism go with the flow?

All the many desperate attempts to propose means to save newspapers/journalism seem to me to be efforts to swim upstream, for force something to happen that doesn’t want to happen in the internet age. I prefer instead to look for models that allow journalism to go with the flow (pardon me: as Google does) — to find ways to take advantage of the economics of online rather than fighting them. Consider the cures we’re hearing about:

* Charging for content. G’bless ’em, if they can do it, great. But experience just tells us that it’s hard to charge for content, that charging brings other costs (subscriber acquisition marketing, customer service, churn), that it has other impact (draining Googlejuice and online branding and taking the content out of the conversation), that there is always another competitor who will offer content for free, and that once information is know, it becomes a commodity. See: TimesSelect. Charging is definitely a case of swimming upstream.

* Antitrust exemptions. It’s suggested that newspapers should get an antitrust exemption to collude and put all their content, en masse, behind a pay wall. But they don’t own the news anymore. There’s always somebody else – a TV station, a foreign outlet, and, yes, a blogger – who can compete. See: New Century Network. That life preserver is leaky.

* Micropayments. Bless them, too. But micropayments simply have not worked and it’s hard to imagine why they would now. And whether the charge is micro or macro, it’s still a charge that causes all the impact listed above. Glub, glub.

* Make Google pay. This one assumes that newspapers have a God-given right to the income they used to get from advertising and that Google (and craigslist and eBay and papers’ own customers with their own, free web sites, for that matter) stole it from the papers and thus are starving journalism. Show me where that commandment is written. Others competed with lazy, monopolistic newspapers, giving the marketplace a better service. Google and the rest owe them nothing. Indeed, newspapers should be paying Google for its distribution and promotion, as Google is the new newsstand and content gains value with links.

* Charity. Again, if someone wants to buy a paper and support it in the manner to which it has long been accustomed, bless them, too. But the sugar daddy defense clearly won’t scale; there aren’t enough good souls and financial fools to take on the business.

* Government bailouts. Perish the thought! But then again, newspapers have been on the government dole for decades, as official repositories of legal ads. On this week’s On the Media, Brooke Gladstone does a nice job tying the rationale for keeping these ads in a pretzel. There’s simply no reason for taxpayers to keep paying this subsidy to publishers when governments can put up legal notices on line, searchable, linkable, and for free.

* PR. The World Association of Newspapers and now a bunch of publishers keep whistling in the graveyard, fighting back against word of their demise by insisting that newspapers are OK, damnit. That and thousands of dollars will get you a bill from a flack.

The real need for the future of journalism is to find business models that exploit the reality of the web with larger audiences, greater efficiencies, working in networks with lower cost and risk. I put forward one such scenario here and this is why I’m starting the New Business Models for News Project at CUNY. The challenge is to find the means to sustain journalism on its own merit and weight in the market. Anything short of that is surrender. And we haven’t done enough to find those models to throw in the towel yet. First, let’s find and try the means and models that enable journalism to succeed by going with the flow. If that fails, then maybe we can resort to any of the hail Mary passes above.