Debunking the coulda-shoulda-woulda myth of online news

I’m trying quite hard to stay out of the business of chasing after curmudgeons with a laptop in my hand, shouting “But you got it all wrong!”

Trying. Quite. Hard.

So let this be just a generic blanket response to a common misconception about the business of online news.

The premise, as laid out in hand-wringers running in handsome op-ed columns in handsome print editions all over the world, periodically:

If only newspapers had charged for online access to the news when this whole Interweb thing got started, they wouldn’t be in such a mess right now.

This, my friends, is a false assumption.

So here’s the deal: Putting the news behind a paywall as early as, say, AOL’s heyday – or earlier if you prefer – would have actually served to accelerate the rise of blogs, citizen media, and flight away from news-on-paper.


Because pulling your content out of the stream of connections that is the Web would have led to members of your community making even more connections themselves, without your help.

Newspapers would have essentially ceded the public forum to the public, an admirable and honorable move, but not a profitable one.

Make it harder for a person to get informed about their surroundings through your product all you want, but please don’t walk around assuming you’re The Only Game In Town.

That’s a topic for a different post, but rest assured that your readers know how to communicate with each other without your help.

They’re not as dumb as you think.

6 thoughts on “Debunking the coulda-shoulda-woulda myth of online news”

  1. I can’t help but wonder if you’re responding, in part, to the essays coming from David Simon that’s populating Romenesko, Gawker, etc., these days.

    I don’t think the issue here is the free distribution, it think the problem is in the way online advertising is flawed: connected to web traffic and click-thrus. This contradicted the traditional way newspapers were used to selling ads: visibility.

    The problem is that online ads can be tracked with huge efficiency in comparison to the vagueness that traditional print advertising wasn’t. Circulation doesn’t mean people saw your ad, so really the circulation to actual people who saw your ad ratio was misrepresented, I believe. The web brought some brutal honesty, which makes it a harder sell.

    As far as the rise of citizen media by locking content behind pay walls, I’m a bit skeptical on that. Considering how many dot coms went bust, I think a lot of those early effort services might have ended up just re-enforcing the mindset of newspapers at the time.

    Plus, I’m not sure that citizen media would be as robust for several other reasons.

    One, we were still on dial-up, meaning a lot of the citizen media efforts would literally be held back by available speed and connectivity. I think bandwidth is a huge issue here as is the factor that we used to pay for Internet by the minute.

    Two, Geocities and Tripod were staples that required a lot of non-common knowledge of the Web at the time. It was a lot of work to put up a website, let alone keep it updated. I just don’t think the number of people who were savvy enough was in great numbers to make citizen media work at the time.

    Three, the social networking concept wasn’t fully developed at the time to bring people locally together to make citizen media work. I recall the early days of when I was on the Internet, the allure was being able to talk to people around the nation and world. You didn’t seek out local news and local people. Why would you? For the first time, the world was brought closer to you. It was more exciting than knowing what was happening in town.


  2. 100 percent right.

    In an alternate universe news organizations would have done this – and in that universe 2008 would have seen the end of even MORE newspapers and more jobs.


  3. The best argument against this has to be ESPN’s Insider. It’s good information, from top of the line reporters, and sports nuts (me included) love it.

    But if you’re into baseball, mlbtraderumors provides the same information. For free. And football fans have their sites, college fans their own… no one can claim plain old informaiton as a commodity anymore.


  4. […] Debunking the coulda-shoulda-woulda myth of online news (Ryan Sholin, thanks to Poynter Online) “Here’s the deal: Putting the news behind a paywall as early as, say, AOL’s heyday — or earlier if you prefer — would have actually served to accelerate the rise of blogs, citizen media, and flight away from news-on-paper.” I still think people are willing to pay, they just don’t want to pay for lots of different subscriptions.  The first person to come up with a creative way to bundle subscriptions is going to have a lot of say over how news is gathered and presented to the public. […]


  5. These folks are, to borrow a phrase, the newspaper deadenders. Charging for content that can be had elsewhere for free (as Wynn said) was never a good idea, but nevermind that. The people who make and consider these arguments have generally been wrong, wrong, wrong about the Web from its inception. What’s happening today is that they’re rationalizing their clueless-ness, as if missing the point represents some noble stand against the culture-leveling hordes unleashed by networked media.

    As to the relative speed of tech adoption, I think it hardly matters. The availability of p2p web tools and the evolution of the network made all of this inevitable, just as the need for making sense of vast information streams and the availability of informatics tools means the end of traditional newsroom “news judgment.”

    The fantasy that these deadenders still share is a nostalgia for control and status. But control doesn’t scale, and their diminished status is no tragedy.


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