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Paying for investigative journalism

Paul Steiger, outgoing editor of the Wall Street Journal, announced today that he is heading Pro Publica, a foundation-backed, nonprofit organization that will perform investigative journalism and place it in established media organizations.

Is this how investigative journalism will be supported in the future, with journalistic organizations shrinking inexorably?

I have been dubious about foundation support for journalism. Rich people with good intentions are often held out there as the great hope for reporting: foundations and moguls that save news and newsrooms from the ravages of the marketplace. I’ve warned against thinking that there is or should be any such white knight who will save news organizations from change and let newsrooms operate exactly as they have. We must find ways to make journalism sustainable in the new marketplace. Indeed, we must find ways to expand it (thus the Networked Journalism Summit).

But supporting independent investigative journalism may be another matter.

Having heard about Pro Publica last week, I was thinking about the ecosystem of news today and I’m working on a post about trying to do a zero-based analysis of news. That is, how much of news is really investigative? How much is beat reporting? How much is about a news event? How much is crime? How much is hyperlocal? How much is opinion? How much is entertainment? Where should each kind of journalism come from: staff, citizens, links? And how can each be supported?

Whenever news people complain about cutbacks, someone in the room will argue that if another job is lost, it will be the end of investigative journalism. But I, obnoxious fellow that I am, always ask why that one job couldn’t be that of the golf columnist or movie critic or wire rewriteman. Who says that shrinking news organizations — and finding efficiencies — should hamper investigation? Well, some argue that in atomized news, investigative journalism brings no inherent advertising, so it may not be supported by the market. Or one could argue back that investigative journalism is precisely what makes news organizations valuable to their communities and those communities know that. So how will they support it?

I think that if we analyze the staffing and production devoted to investigation in American journalism, we’ll find that it’s a pretty damned small proportion of news budgets. And I suspect we’ll find that if it is not supported by large media organizations, it could be supported by foundations and public donation. That could come from independent organizations like Pro Publica and others (in its list of comparables, the Times misses the Center for Public Integrity). It also could come from independent journalists like Josh Marshall.

There is one caution to this: These organizations can be backed by and run by people with axes to grind. And so we may find an imbalance in investigation. That’s why the role of the editor, the journalist upholding public standards, remains important. Jay Rosen saw that when he started New Assignment and initially planned on having the public assign the stories (which I hope he still does); the editor stood in the way of the axes. And at Pro Publica, I have every confidence in its independence and intellectual honesty because it has Paul Steiger at its helm. It’s hard to name a more respected editor in this country.

No, foundations are not the salvation of newsrooms as we knew them. But this one could demonstrate that we could save — even expand — the scope of investigative journalism. I’ll be eager to watch.

Networked Journalism Summit follow up

Having never organized a conference, I was nervous about so many things before the Networked Journalism Summit we held at CUNY on Wednesday (thanks to the MacArthur Foundation). I think it went off well. Scott Anderson of Tribune put together a good collection of summary bullets. The students blogged the sessions at and we’ll put up video and audio when we can. Robin Hamman called our event “stonking.” I sure hope that’s good.

What matters most to me coming out of this is inspiration and ideas turning into action. We will follow up on that action to see what really happens. But I was delighted to hear Jay Rosen say that at the Summit he signed up five partners for his next effort in beat reporting backed by social networks. Henry Abbott said: “I made stars in my notes when I heard an idea that made me think: I should do that on TrueHoop. There are about 40 stars in my notes. Cool!” Here’s the first of those stars in action: collaborative curation of video. Debbie Galant called to say that she has new things to do to try to fix comments. Dan Pacheco is still processing. One local organization was inspired by Jim Colgan’s experiment in crowdsourcing at WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and also plans to ask its audience to find and compare the price of a six-pack of beer in their market. That might sound small but I think it’s big because it is about mobilizing the people formerly known as the audience to join in and prove that together, we can learn more than we could on our own. That’s a major cultural shift in news and I am confident it will lead to bigger ideas and more collaboration. That’s what counts. Enough talk, now it’s time for working together to expand journalism. More followup when we poll the participants on what they’re up to next. We will keep sharing lessons and best practices. That, I hope, was is the value of the day.

Some of my thoughts after we cleaned up the guacamole:

* BUSINESS MODELS: When I asked Backfence’s Mark Potts what he/we most need to get to the next level, he replied, “a business model.” No one has a good business model for this stuff — let alone for the future of news. But as Jay Rosen points out, the crowd was oddly calm given our presence in an overcrowded, leaky canoe headed up the creek with no paddles in hand. I didn’t intend this, but the business discussions at the Summit certainly lead straight into the next event we’re holding out of CUNY’s News Innovation Project — a session exploring new business models for news. This is urgent work.

There were sparks of good news about business. Jeff Burkett of said they were getting double-digit CPMs for ads on their new blog networks, close to what they get for the site proper (though he wasn’t exact and we didn’t quiz him on sell-through). Stephen Smyth of Reuters is about to start up a similar network. Rick Waghorn of the UK is learning to sell the old-fashioned way: calling on restaurants and auto dealers.

I think it’s clear that there are easy, low-hanging steps the people in the room could take to improve the current business model: Local newspapers should set up ad networks among quality local blogs, allowing the papers to expand their content and reach without cost and risk and encouraging more bloggers to do more good work (‘produce less, gather more’ should be their chant — and the way to encourage others to produce more so you can gather it is to support their work financially). National outlets should organize national ad networks. Mark Potts said it’s likely that the only way to succeed at small is to be part of something big. We must also make it easier for advertisers to buy small and collaborative media. In the networks we create, we must give advertisers what they demand in data on demographics and performance, which small sites don’t have, but which big sites can help provide.

But those business models aren’t new enough. We need to investigate and experiment with more ways to tackle the business and ecosystem of news. I’ll post later about the idea of doing a zero-based analysis (how ’80s MBA of me) of journalism. And I’ll start brainstorming here on new business models.

* MOTIVE MATTERS: Well, duh, people aren’t going to do this stuff just because we want them to.

Jay Rosen said he learned that people need to be motivated to contribute effort to a project like NewAssignment. That motive needn’t be money; it could be self-interest of all sorts: I need to know, I want to know, I wish someone would look into this. . . . But it’s most likely self-interest.

So start with money. Earning payment for creating content or coverage is clearly a key motivation and we must have better systems for paying (and more revenue to share). As Merrill Brown of NowPublic pointed out in his session, this also makes contributors more reliable; as NowPublic is assigned news stories by the AP, it has to be able to rely on people to take on the work, and paying them is one way to assure that. Money matters.

We also heard from the folks at the Ft. Myers News Press and Gannett that pocketbook issues are likely to draw more interest and effort from citizens who join in collaborative products: How does this affect my life?

I raised the idea I’ve learned from my students at CUNY and at Burda that we need to turn the relationship around and enable our communities to assign us to stories we should report, on our own or collectively. They will tell us what matters to them.

This from the liveblogging of the social session on the topic of motive:

Travis Henry, YourHub — “The number one reason people post or contribute on my site is because… they want to see themselves in print. Then they start caring about how many hits they get.”

Melissa Baily, New Haven Independent — “We have these junkie types who crave more information about the town.”

There are lots of motives. But helping out the newspaper or big-media site is not one of them.

And in the end, we mustn’t forget that we, the media, do not own the product of this collaboration. The community does. Jarah Euston said there was some resentment when her Fresno Famous was sold to the Fresno Bee. The community thought they owned this; that’s exactly what you hope will happen when you enable people to collaborate through you: they take on ownership. That’s thinking like a platform: you provide it and people build atop it. At the end, who owns the wisdom and effort of the crowd? Why, of course, the crowd does.

* THE POWER OF PRINT: One theme we heard again and again was the power of taking citizen content and printing and distributing that: People, we were told, love to see their pictures or words on paper. It’s a boost to the ego, a validation, and one motive (among others) for producing this content. Perhaps more important is the fact that advertisers, particularly local advertisers, still buy print and so this is how to make this citizen content profitable (as has been done at NorthwestVoice and its California cousins and at Martin Huber’s MyHeimat in Germany).

So I think we can make better use of print to promote, to distribute, to encourage collaboration and to sell advertising. But I do think we could be seduced into making too much of print’s connection. We still have to develop the online revenue model. We shouldn’t think that taking disjointed quotes from the public and putting them in print in a ghetto of a feature makes the old products interactive (when this conversation should affect the entire process of news).

When I put Debbie Gallant of Baristanet and Jim Willse, editor of the Star-Ledger, on the spot about what they should do together, neither was enthusiastic about reverse publishing, as we call online-to-print. In fact, Debbie turned up her nose at the idea. Jim said that perhaps there should be an online exchange of content (Ledger high school sports coverage for Baristanet local stories) and he talked about an ad network (though he later said — and this is the real challenge — that in local newspapers, ad sales teams are not built for this). I saw them huddling together later. We’ll find out what they were concocting.

* COMMUNITY BRINGS COST: Another clear lesson from the best practitioners at the Summit was that there is a cost to community — a coordination cost, as Jay Rosen called it. This is the cost of managing, enabling, wrangling, curating.

It is also the cost of cleaning up the bad comments from the bozos. And there is the cost to the brand, the esprit and civility of the community, and its reputation if and when a few misbehave.

Many of us measure the value of content and conversation by the volume of comments. But perhaps that is the wrong measure; perhaps we need to measure the quality. Debbie Gallant is looking for some software to help with her comments. Newspapers too frequently have to deal with cesspools of racist comments that collect here and there. Mark Potts and others have tried to get people to use their real identities – which, Mark points out, may be more useful for people when they are your neighbors.

But Robin Hamman of the BBC has gone a step farther — one I agree with — and is moving off the idea that community and interaction must happen on your site. Instead, the BBC is trying to organize the discussion happening elsewhere, whether on our own blogs or on Flickr or YouTube. I think that’s smart.

Should we close comments? No. But should perhaps we can find ways to — wash my interactive mouth out with soap — to edit, curate, or judge them (and how much cost does that add?). When we create external networks of blogs — in, say, blogrolls — we are selective; why not with commenters (Nick Denton is headed this way at Gawker Media, but then Nick is a believer in the velvet rope).

The long and the short of it is that we are dying for a new paradigm for interaction. We all value the interaction. We all have had to deal with the bozos — and, unlike editors in the early days of the internet, we at the Summit did not dismiss all interactivity because of the bad behavior of the few. Indeed, we value interactivity so much so that we are saying quality matters. Short of overcomplicated systems like SlashDot, we just haven’t figured out how to enable and manage this. I see beginning efforts to curate interactivity in services that pick the people who pick the good stuff (champion Diggers or Glam curators — more on them later).

* ENABLE AND EDUCATE: As we begin to see ourselves as members of networks rather than owners of content, our relationships with our communities shift. I heard a lot of this at the Summit: We are figuring out how to facilitate our communities to do what they want to do. We are figuring out how to mobilize them to collaborate (what is the price of that six-pack?). We sometimes need to educate people and be educated.

And all this means that our people need different skills — and it also may mean that we need different kinds of people. Just as we thought the key to survival in the new age was learning how to make a podcast, the earth moves again and now a key skill is organizing people. Dan Barkin from the News & Observer and Robin Hamman from the BBC talked about that as people in the room wondered of Robin: Are there any more at home like you? Where do you come from? Where do we find you’s? And I wonder how we train them out of journalism school.

There’s much, much more but those are the big buckets I saw. Much more to come….

How do we teach the conversation?

I’m speaking briefly Friday at a symposium held at Columbia in honor of the late and legendary Prof. James Carey. I’m on a panel about the future of journalism education and I chose to talk about teaching the conversation. Here are my notes.

When I had the privilege of meeting Prof. Carey, at a conference in Philadelphia, the buzz du jour was “news as conversation.” After I contributed to that buzz, he chuckled and told me he’d been talking about news as conversation for much of his career. Please note that he didn’t say this in what I will admit can be the bloggish way – as in, ‘I said it first.’ Instead, he was visibly gratified. His idea had spread, his meme had propagated.

Prof. Carey was quite right: The idea is not new. But I do think it more widely accepted in my tribes of bloggers, journalists, and educators. And it is more apparent thanks to technology. The internet is less a medium filled with content than it is a platform that enables connections between people and information and each other. It enables the conversation.

So if news is conversation, then the question is, how do we teach the conversation?

How does the role of the journalist change? Journalists must now augment their traditional and valued roles of reporter, watchdog, questioner, vetter, investigator, editor. In the conversation, they need to take on new roles, as moderator, enabler, organizer, talent scout, even journalistic evangelist and educator.

The reality of technology and media today is that everyone can create. The reality of business and journalism is that we must find new ways to collaborate; as our institutions shrink, our strategic challenge in news is to produce less and gather more – and thus we need to encourage others to produce more so we can gather it. And our challenge as educators is to improve the journalism that all these people, professional and amateur, do.

Journalists can no longer see themselves merely as the protectors and beneficiaries of their institutions’ reputations. They need to see themselves as members of larger, looser, more open networks of collaborators. They must contribute value to those networks to gain value themselves.

Of course, journalists should retain – and propagate – the ethics, standards, and practices of journalism that our schools have taught during our lifetimes. But at the same time, they should understand the new ethics of these new networks, which I’ve learned online: the ethic of the link (which says, ‘don’t take my word for it, go see for yourself’), the ethic of permanence (which says that knowledge grows on knowledge, via the link), the ethic of the correction (which is only more immediate in new media), and the ethic of transparency.

So, how do we teach this? I’m not sure yet.

Our first challenge, I think, is to figure out how to teach interactivity – before our students have publics with whom to interact. Blogging would seem to be the perfect tool to explore this relationship. But in my first year teaching at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, I must confess, I did my worst job teaching weblogs. Oh, the irony. I made the assumption that these young people shared a common understanding of blogging when, in fact, they each brought widely different definitions and presumptions, some treacherous (that is, that blogging licenses and demands snarking). Many weren’t ready to serve a public, did not know how to, even feared doing so.

This year at CUNY, we are trying another tactic: having the students find a public, a community where the conversation is already underway. Their task is to figure out how to add journalism to that conversation in the form of facts, answers, corrections, reporting, context, balance, research. We’ll see how that works – and I will blog about what we learn.

Networked, collaborative, pro-am journalism – whether that’s practiced under the label hyperlocal or crowdsourcing or whatever buzzword comes next – also alters the relationship of journalist to the public. Our students will need to learn how to find not just experts to quote, but experts and witnesses who will report and publish themselves. Journalists may need to organize or wrangle this reporting public, as Jay Rosen has said. And, as Jay learned at his, they’ll need to craft the essential assignments and support the work of these willing citizens. They also need to learn to moderate discussion. So there is indeed a role for editing. I’m still not sure how to bring these skills into the classroom, but I believe it likely means that we need to turn our communities not just into subjects of coverage but also into laboratories for collaboration.

This stretches to institutional journalism as well. I argue that we should consider the idea of turning newsrooms into classrooms, where journalists help new practitioners accomplish their goals more effectively – improving their journalism – and where the journalists, too, learn from the community and also learn collaboration with their communities. So it follows that we need to teach our students to become teachers of journalism. That is a new skill for them. It is also keystone of a new culture: a generosity of professionalism, recognizing that the true value of the professional – especially in the networked economy – is not realized by owning and controlling one’s knowledge, practices, and standards, but by sharing them. Prof. Carey said in his AEJ address that the birth of professional journalism education is “a story of the creation of a new social class invested with enormous power and authority . . . and the enhancement of professional authority and mystique.” By turning newsrooms into classrooms, perhaps we can reverse that; we can break down the walls around journalists, deflate their mystique, and redefine the exclusivity of professionalism. Carey said that “status and prestige, not knowledge or ethics or rectitude, turn out to be the key to professionalism.” But in a network, authority and status are defined, instead, by participation and generosity. Those must be the new keystones of professionalism that we teach.

Next, I hope we teach the value of the link. It is the key architectural element supporting a new structure of media, the steel beam that enables journalism to build past prior physical limitations, to grow taller, wider, and stronger than before. Just recently, I have heard confusion from working journalists about the role of the link. They still think it is an endorsement rather than an extension or an FYI. They don’t always understand how links power the algorithms that organize knowledge today, and how links are the basis of media distribution from now on. Yes, today, journalists should learn the science of search-engine optimization just as we learned the artful marketing power of the catchy headline or the intriguing cover.

And, of course, we are all beginning to teach our students to work in any appropriate medium, to make the choice of how best to tell stories and distribute news – a choice that we could not make when we were prisoners of one medium or another. This is why students at CUNY learn and create work in all media. I hope we also teach students to experiment with new forms of storytelling, mixing media not on a page but in a narrative. The real lesson here is not in any single tool or technique: It is the imperative of change, of flexibility, and of innovation.

I want to emphasize that last point: Journalism has long been taught as an art of preservation – protecting age-old verities that do, indeed, require and deserve our armor. We were also taught to protect journalism from the business people and business interests that, in fact, supported our endeavors. As a result, we do not operate in a culture of change and innovation in journalism. And too many do not understand the economics that support or threaten the industry. An executive who works with many news organizations told me recently that he saw no innovation going on in news companies in this country. Even I thought that was strong. But he reiterated his point: “Zero,” he said. This is why I am teaching a course in journalistic entrepreneurialism at CUNY, where students are proposing to create new and sustainable journalistic enterprises. They are learning not only innovation but business – as well as journalistic value – as they compete not just for grades but for grants of seed money from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. The difficulty of starting a new enterprise from scratch, without the capital of a giant, monopoly media organzation, is also teaching them the need and value of working with partners in the communities they hope to serve. It is teaching them the value of the conversation.

Finally, I quote from Roy Peter Clark’s tribute to Prof. Carey at Poynter, in which he listened to David Shedden’s interview with the professor in 1991. Asking for final thoughts in their talk, Prof. Carey said: “There are no final thoughts. I quote all the time these wonderful words of Kenneth Burke: ‘Life is a conversation. When we enter it’s already going on. We try to catch the drift of it. We exit before it’s over.'”

I think Jim Carey teaches us to teach our students that larger lesson. Journalism is not a technical skill of mere observation that can sit to the side of society. It is inevitably part of society. And now that we do have the ability to have a conversation with the people formerly known as our audience (hat tip to Jay Rosen) we need to teach the students to learn from that and to be willing to reexamine their roles as journalists in the communities they serve. The essential skills of journalism – listening, understanding, organizing, sharing – are the same, but we have so many new ways to practice them.

News is a conversation. Life is a conversation. The question for us is, how do we teach our students to be great conversationalists?

There is no safe harbor from change

I continue to see news people wishing upon stars for some salvation from the change bearing down on them: fairy godmothers who will swoop in from government or foundations or rich families to provide magic money that lets them continue to do business as they have. Consider this Columbia Journalism Review piece wishing for government support of news and this New York Times report setting up the Poynter-Institute-owned St. Petersburg Times as an ideal.

Those ways, danger lies.

It’s not as if these models can’t work. Look at the government-funded BBC or the trust-supported Guardian (where, full disclosure, I write and consult). I’m not saying either direction is wrong. I am saying that finding such support does not insulate one from change. Quite the contrary, I’d say it morally obligates one to change. But that’s not what these wishful thinkers see in these models. They see protection.

The problem I have with the thinking in the pieces linked above, especially in CJR, is that it assumes that the way things have been done is the way they should continue to be done; it values preservation over innovation. It assumes that big organizations are the best ones to gather and deliver our news, when small may well hold much of the future of journalism. And it ignores the shoddy stewardship that many of these incumbent organizations have shown for news, squandering the incredible advantages their monopolies gave them while not innovating for the future and while losing the trust of the public.

And, of course, in the case of government support, there are the grave dangers of government interference in the press and speech. CJR goes so far as to proclaim, “To survive, journalism and journalists need to let go of their aversion to Uncle Sam.” Good God. Journalism exists to have an aversion to Uncle Sam. When government supports journalism, will journalism support government? In Murdoch’s purchase of Dow Jones, I heard people complain first that he interferes and then that he didn’t have to interfere because his underlings would fear displeasing him. Imagine that kind of thinking when your boss isn’t one mogul but a thousand politicians and their millions of complaining constituents.

And today, it’s more complicated than than just giving money to PBS and NPR. If government were to support journalism now, whom should they support: the big, old newspaper or the scrappy, inventive blogger? Doesn’t Gawker do journalism? Can’t a condo association’s blog? Who’s to say? Well, government will say, and that means that government would certify and decertify journalists. What government gives, it can take away.

The next problem I have with the notion of government support is that it instills, as it has in both American journalism and in British broadcasting, the myth of impartial, objective journalism. That, I’ve argued, is an aberration in media, a departure from news as the public conversation of interested parties. It is the product of public subsidy and market monopoly. It makes journalists believe that they can serve all equally and that they — not we — are the ones who should decide what is impartial and objective and balanced without having to reveal their own perspectives. It makes journalism less transparent, thus less honest.

The CJR piece makes the case for government support in the form of subsidy for research and development, including technology like electronic paper. Well, government does provide tax breaks for R&D now. But I think that were we to support research and invention, it should be open and for all to share — The Times as much as Engadget. And I think it is a mistake to believe that where we need invention is in delivery methods, as if electronic paper is the salvation of newspapers (we already have electronic paper: you’re staring at it). No, I believe that the innovation we need is in methodology and education, in getting more people to practice journalism and in helping them (pro or am) do it better.

OK, most of my complaints have been about government support. What do I have against foundation or mogul support? Nothing. But as the Times story makes clear, it’s the rare family that would decide to give its great asset to a foundation rather than to its own future generations. And as presently run, newspapers are not a good investment for moguls or foundations. Still, it’s a fine and wonderful thing that the Poynter family gave its paper and the Scott family its paper, the Guardian, to trusts. My point to the wishful thinkers is that this does not then take you out of the race and the need to reinvent newspapers. Indeed, I see brave innovation at the Guardian. So I’m merely saying that these folks should stop wishing upon that star. Someone else’s money is not safe harbor.

Here’s the bottom line: Rather than trying to insulate ourselves from the marketplace with these subsidies, our challenge is instead to answer the question of whether the marketplace will support journalism and how it will do that. Does the public need and want journalism? I believe strongly that they do and they know it. So rather than trying to find money to support the old ways artificially, we need resources to invent the new ways, the ones we don’t know yet. We need to take advantage of all the opportunities we have to gather and share news in new ways while preserving the best and most valuable of the old (and sloughing off the waste of the old). We need to explore new products and new business models and new relationships and we need to show that they are good investments, not charity cases.

Times deselected

TimesSelect is dead. It was a cynical act doomed from the start. With it goes any hope of charging for content online. Content is now and forever free.

No one with sufficient experience ever thought that TimesSelect made good business sense. Oh, they talked a good game: It was another revenue stream to balance dependence on advertising, said the spin, . . . It was a tribute to the great value of the Times brand and its unique content ,. . . It was an opportunity to create added value worth added revenue. . . . It was a way to give print subscribers new benefits. Yada-yada-ka-ching.

Bull. TimesSelect represented the last gasp of the circulation mentality of news media, the belief that surely consumers would continue to pay for content even as the internet commodified news and — more important — even as the internet revealed that the real value in media is not owning and controlling content or distribution but enabling conversation.

I remember Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, giving a speech in which he ridiculed the revenue TimesSelect brought in. In his beloved PowerPoint, Rusbridger showed a picture of the new Times headquarters and said that the revenue from TimesSelect wouldn’t even pay the gas bill for the place.

The financial analyses of TimesSelect were always too simplistic — as if revenue were profit. The Times obituary for its service said that the service collected $49.95 per year or $7.95 per month from 227,000 paying customers at the end — 787,000 total customers, including print subscribers and, recently, academic readers given a free ride. The Times said it brought in $10 million revenue after two years, which sounds damned respectable. But no one ever mentioned the marketing cost to get that revenue. A magazine that costs $50 a year will spend almost that much acquiring subscribers. No one mentioned the extra editorial costs of creating more content to try to make the damned thing special enough to pay for. I never heard any calculation of the customer-service cost of maintaining that many customers, most of whom brought in no revenue. And then there was the question of how much revenue was lost in the Times archives, included in the deal. So though TimesSelect may have brought in revenue at a rate of $10 million at the end, it didn’t earn that much profit. I wonder whether it was profitable at all.

And TimesSelect cost the paper much more in the internet age: It took the Times columnists out of the conversation and reduced their influence in America and worldwide. Worse, it diluted the paper’s Googlejuice. Even as the Times acquired, a grand demonstration of the economic power of search-engine optimization (where, full disclosure, I consulted for a year and a half), the company shut off some of its content from Google’s search and bloggers’ links. That was its greatest harm.

TimesSelect’s brilliant cynicism was that, when forced to find something to put behind a pay wall, they came up with content that was, indeed, uniquely valuable — the columnists and archives. But this was also content for which there was no significant ad revenue at the time (advertisers buy ads in food and travel but not opinion sections; there is essentially no endemic advertising for blather). Thus they made the good college try to prove whether or not a pay news service could work without harming the ad revenue of the business. Even so, TimesSelect hurt the larger brand and its position in the marketplace, in the conversation, and in Google. It was a short-sighted strategy.

I should add that this is apparently why the company just decided to make some of its archives free — great news for readers and for the paper, for it will bring in more traffic, more Googlejuice, and more revenue (and, besides, it’d be hard to charge for archives once they were perceived as free for most TimesSelect users). Oddly, the Times story says that archives from 1987 to present and from 1851 to 1922 will be free but there will be charges for reading articles from 1923 to 1986 (I smell a committee decision).

The bottom line is that the staff of the Times online did the best it could with TimesSelect, creating the richest service they could and probably garnering the largest paying clientèle possible — but still, it was a bad idea from the start. It turned out to be one expensive experiment, one bad investment.

But now everyone else in the content business can learn from the Times’ mistake. Rupert Murdoch has publicly toyed with the idea of taking down the pay wall around the Wall Street Journal online; I’d bet the odds of that just increased. If the Times and the Journal stop charging — and the Economist just took down its wall — then I’d have to imagine that the Financial Times will have to follow suit.

So much for the idea of charging for content — news content especially — online. Too much of it is commodified. There’s no end of free competition. The value is fleeting in time. The cost of charging is too high.

Whether or not content wants to be free, it is free.

Don’t let anyone tell you that this is bad for the content business. It’s only good sense. Having worked in the magazine business, I saw this even at the dawn of the internet: As I said above, a magazine has to pay up to $30-40 in marketing costs to acquire subscribers; it can pay up to $5-7 to print and distribute a copy of a glossy magazine; it has high editorial costs. Add that up, and a magazine can find itself in the hole $60 or more per subscriber in the first year of a subscription. And they get as little as $1 per issue in subscription revenue. Yet clearly, a magazine can make money because that subscriber’s value to advertisers is much greater.

It’s the relationship that is valuable. It’s the relationship that is profitable, not the control of the content or the distribution. That is the essential media moral of the internet story. It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for, but they’ve finally learned it. That is the lesson of the death of TimesSelect.

: Here’s the Times’ announcement. Note that they sold American Express as a sponsor of the now-public opinion section. They are good at sales.

Here’s Staci Kramer’s report in PaidContent (hmmm, a name that has never been great but is now less-great than ever). She interviewed GM Vivian Schiller:

The change is because of what’s happened in the internet in the past two years–particularly the power of search.” She added later: “Think about this recipe–millions and millions of new documents, all seo’d, double-digit advertising growth.” The Times expects “the scale and the power of the revenue that would come from that over time” to replace the subscriptions revenue and then some.