Newspapers and iTunes

I enjoy reading a paper in the morning. Browsing through the San Francisco Chronicle or the Sunday Times over a cup of coffee remains a highlight of my day. Sure, I read articles online as well, but it's just not the same experience.

That's why I was intrigued to see the Time magazine cover story a couple of weeks ago: "How to Save Your Newspaper." Unfortunately, the pair of articles inside were not about how to save the printed paper. Its death was presumed inevitable. Rather, the articles offered ideas as to how newspaper companies, and the journalism they produce, could survive in a digital format.

The basic tenet of the main article, by Walter Isaacson, was that newspapers can no longer survive on a model that gives its content away for free online, depending solely on advertising to make a profit. Especially not in these economic times. I agree.

The suggested solution in a nutshell? "The key to attracting online revenue is to come up with an iTunes-easy method of micropayment." In other words, the newspapers need a quick, simple, relatively inexpensive, one-click method of making a purchase. This would lend itself to no-hassle impulse buys when a reader spotted an article they wanted. Rather than a subscription, you pay per issue or per article. "Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day's full edition..."

The author acknowledges that similar ideas have been tried already -- and mainly failed. But this would be different. Just as Apple succeeded in getting people to pay for songs that were also available for free, a similar approach could work for newspaper articles. As a (non-trivial) bonus, the newspapers would once again be beholden to readers, rather than only to advertisers, for the content they produce.

I'm in favor of anything that works to keep newspapers alive. But I'm not sure the iTunes model, as described in the Time magazine article, is the magic elixir -- at least not without some tinkering. Here's why.

The iTunes pricing structure doesn't translate well for selling articles. I did some math to convert the typical prices for albums and songs in iTunes to their equivalent for newspaper issues and articles. Looking at the average number of articles in a daily newspaper and the newsstand price for an issue, I figured a paper could charge no more than about 90 cents per issue (even less for local papers that have newsstand prices lower than The New York Times or USA Today). As for individual articles, one penny per item would be the max.

I am not sure one penny is enough for papers to make money here. I suppose they could charge a nickel or so and still get a reasonable amount of sales. But I predict this would ultimately fail.

Articles are not songs. Another problem with the newspaper-as-a-music-album metaphor is that a newspaper issue is not easily divided into a collection of equal-in-value articles, as can be done with songs in an album. How do you count the Letters to the Editor section, or the daily editorials, or the obituaries? Some of these would have to be packaged as a unit (you wouldn't buy an individual letter for example). In many cases, I suspect the material wouldn't sell no matter how it was packaged. The paper would likely have to keep offering this content for free, or abandon the content altogether.

I especially worry about the Sports section. Will people really pay even a penny to read articles about last night's game, when the final scores, and probably game details, are available for free on a multitude of non-newspaper Web sites?

The paper will also likely not offer the comic strips and puzzles from their print edition, as these are typically syndicated and have their own separate distributions.

And this doesn't even begin to address the problems with the extra size of the Sunday paper and the extra long articles in magazine sections.

Writers are not musicians. The performers on an album get paid royalties, based on sales. Would such a model transfer to newspapers? Would columnists start getting paid a "royalty" based on the number of people that paid for a particular column? I hope not. Otherwise, I can easily imagine columnists filtering their topics to write only about what generates the most income, rather than what is the most newsworthy. I understand that, in a competitive environment, there is always some pressure in this direction. But a royalty payment system would make it much worse.

Similarly, would a major newspaper terminate its international coverage because such stories are purchased much less than the latest gossip about Jennifer Aniston? That's what happened to most of television news. I don't relish seeing the same thing happen to the remaining decent newspapers.

A modified proposal. In the end, I believe the major push has to be to sell issues, not individual articles. That would solve most of the concerns cited here. This would also encourage browsing through the rest of the day's paper, leading you to discover content you would have never otherwise even known about -- much as happily happens when reading through a printed paper.

The cost of an online issue would have to be cheap enough to encourage an instant purchase based on a desire to perhaps read only one or two articles, but I think this could work. It's not much different than purchasing a paper from a newsstand because of its headline.

But here's the kicker: To have this really work, let's do something that makes the online experience better than the printed paper. Let's push the iTunes metaphor all the way. It might work like this:

After purchasing a paper, you can read it online for that day only, or perhaps just for the next few days. Wait, hold on! You can also choose to download the day's paper to an iTunes-like application on your computer. Here, it is yours forever. This program does more than store the paper, it automatically divides the content of each issue into individual articles, listing them in a database fashion, much the way iTunes lists songs and albums. In this format, you could search for articles based on dates or keywords or whatever. This would be so much better than cutting articles out of a newspaper and storing the clippings in a dark corner of your closet. It's even better than saving a digital folder of Web archives of your favorite articles. If this sort of "iNews" application existed, I might look forward to getting my news online, rather than merely accepting this as the inevitable outcome.