Thursday, June 12, 2008

For the sake of argument

I've been looking at this issue of free vs. paid archives for a while now and it has drawn some attention. Let me be clear about a few things. First of all, I don't thing making archived articles free will save the Herald. The Herald needs to be saved by its management thinking differently than they have to date. It's obvious that what they've done until now is not working. The pay per view archive model is to me just a symptom of the myopia that plagues the folks at McClatchy and 1 Herald Plaza.

In investigating the bit about the archives I came across a few items:

First is this from blogger and former journalist Dan Gillmor, who suggested strongly in January of 2005 that the future was in an ad supported, free to the consumer model:

I recognize the institutional and financial hurdles that will make it difficult to pull off in many companies today, even if they like the idea in a general sense. But I also believe it's almost inevitable....

There are two immediate questions for publishers. First, how much money are they making today from pay-per-view archives? The Poynter Institute's Bill Mitchell said over the weekend (on a mailing list), "The range of news orgs generating significant revenue from archives with current biz models may be more limited than I had assumed."

That's good news. It means that the financial risk of changing the model is small in many, if not most cases.

Second, and related to that, what are the benefits of shifting to an open archive? I'm utterly in Waldman's camp that it would heighten a newspaper's authority, helping keep it at the center -- or not far from there -- of the community's civic agenda.

Every newspaper of any quality has published hundreds of articles that readers can find nowhere else and which bloggers, among others, would surely cite and point to as a vital part of the permanent record of a community. These include investigative pieces, certain features and other stories. If available upon publication at a permanent URL, they quickly rise in search engine rankings, where others will find them later.

I'm convinced that increasingly sophisticated Web advertising, especially keyword-based text ads, will create a revenue stream of some size for such stories. This will be especially the case when they've moved high enough in search-engine rankings to be found without searching the newspaper's site, but that's not crucial...

Someday soon, some paper is going to try this. It'll be a great experiment. I believe it'll be a successful one, too.
A few weeks later in this article from USC's Annenberg Online Journalism Review was published. It's from February of 2005. At the time the New York Times was using the "pay per view" model for its archives and the CEO of the New York Times digital staunchly defended it:
Martin Nisenholtz, the dean of online publishers as CEO of New York Times Digital, says there are two main reasons charges for most of its archives: The marketplace has already valued the content to be worth much more, and there's no way to recoup that value through paid-search ads (such as Google AdWords) or even display advertising.

"We're not about to give away something that the marketplace is paying a huge premium for already," Nisenholtz told me, "unless you could get a lot more than that premium in some other way, which you can't, believe me, there's no way. There's no analysis to show that Google AdWords gets you anything close to what we make on archives on the Web -- never mind all the money we make on the after-market sales. It's so ridiculous as to be laughable."
As I pointed out before, the Times reversed its course in September of 2007 when it announced that a large portion of it's archives would be available free of charge:
“But our projections for growth on that paid subscriber base were low, compared to the growth of online advertising,” said Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site,

“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. Schiller said.

Interestingly Nisenholtz was not quoted in the story though he remains aboard at that the Times.
Shortly after the Times' announcement, Ken Doctor, who was at one time the VP of content services for Knight Ridder Digital, wrote this post about the paid or free dilemma:

Soon as they figured out they couldn't charge for today's content, they felt compelled to charge for something. Hence, archives. Walled-off and searchable, but through separate interfaces, at per-article and bundled costs. These products have created good revenue streams, but not major ones. That's what has led both Time Inc. and the New York Times to unbuckle their archive belts and open them up to the public.

As Dan Gillmor sagely pointed out as the Times announced the freeing of the archives (and the termination of Times Select), the Times seized the opportunity to become the publisher of record, instant world news, everywhere, a real platform for 21st century growth. Local news publishers are now scratching their own heads, wondering if they can become the publishers of record for their metro areas and communities, and whether they'll be similarly (though on a smaller scale) rewarded.
This is the crux of my argument. Whether its coverage Hurricane Andrew, Elian Gonzalez, or the 2000 election and recount saga there's a lot of important content about south Florida out there that everyday netizens would read if they had access. Right now, interested folks end up at news and newspaper sites that are literally and figuratively far away from those stories.

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