Is Free Content King in Journalism?

February 20, 2009

As you know, there's been a lot of talk in recent years about the survival and future of newspapers. Years ago, I wrote a research paper at Northeastern University about print publication shrinkage and how stories and reporters were being replaced by advertisements. At that time, there was little focus on the concept of free journalism. As the conversation continues, publications are appealing to consumers all over the world in hopes of saving newspapers and journalism jobs in some way, without solely focusing on bringing in advertising dollars. In fact, this week's TIME magazine cover story by Walter Isaacson (a former TIME managing editor), highlights “How to Save Your Newspaper.” Issacson discusses how he himself has stopped subscribing to the New York Times because “if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it.” He goes on to compliment Rupert Murdoch for the WSJ's online paid subscriptions (up 7 percent in 2008), and deciding not to drop the fee after he publicly stated he would do so.

But the question remains as we promote content in the PR industry: Is content really king if it's for free in the journalism industry? We, as PR professionals, pitch these reporters day in and day out, trying to help them form story ideas and providing sources for their articles. How can we do this successfully if their magazine is not surviving or being respected by consumers because they aren't charging for their content? It's much more important to stay visible during times like these. Should journalists get paid for every consumer reading their story? You would think so. Therefore, if you're one of those people that likes free web applications, downloads, publications, etc. - maybe you should think again. Of course we always like anything for free, especially during an economic downturn. But as a consumer that looks forward to reading the news each day (online and in print), I look at the future of my favorite publications like TIME, NYT, Newsweek, etc., with caution. I completely agree with Issacson. I want them to survive and I want these journalists and publications to get paid for the hard work, respect and content that is king all over the world…

“Charging for content forces discipline on journalists: they must produce things that people actually value…they need to be valued by readers – serving them first and foremost rather than relying solely on advertising revenue – will allow the media once again to set their compass true to what journalist should always be about.”

Hats off, Isaacson. I'm happy to send a dime or more to TIME magazine.

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