A paper on papers’ future

Almost every day, I find another newspaper publishing another editorial or letter claiming that everything’s OK with papers or that society is not OK without them.

Now The Financial Times offers an editorial on the future of newspapers that starts off sensibly and unemotionally. But then it ends up, as I read it, nya-nyaing other papers essentially saying that we can charge and if you were any good you could, too.

….One potential suitor has decided against entering the print fray – Google, whose Google News aggregation service is sometimes unfairly blamed for causing papers’ problems. Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, told the FT that Google will help papers to adapt to the internet rather than buy them.

The degree to which the travails of papers are a threat to an informed democracy can be exaggerated, particularly by journalists. The internet has made print less profitable but has also made new forms of information-gathering and commentary possible. Bloggers get a bad press but low-cost publishing helps new sources to emerge.

The profitability of papers in the late 20th century, when they had a monopoly of classified advertising, was an anomaly. Before that, newspaper barons owned them more to wield power than nurture democracy, while the 18th-century press was as partisan and rambunctious as any bunch of bloggers.

That’s great: sensible talk at last from a newspaper about the newspaper business. You’d expect that from a financial paper. But then things shift as the FT acknowledges that “Business papers, including the FT, have had more success in charging online readers than general-interest publications. … Perhaps some of the reporting done up to now by for-profit papers will in future be funded by foundations or trusts. But the industry should not lose faith in the free market.”

Still, bravo. But then the kicker: “When people really want or need something, they will pay for it, one way or another. If today’s publishers cannot convince their readers to do so, they will be overtaken by others that can.”

Sigh. You’d think that the FT of all papers would see that there are many models for supporting journalism, not just payment from readers or foundations. The FT itself also makes money from advertising, of course, and from merchandise sales and from holding events. Rather than sticking a twig in the eye of papers that aren’t as lucky as the FT to be able to charge, it would have been more helpful if it had called for more innovation in more business and revenue models.