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Another Way for Newspapers to Not Die

Not long ago, we posted here about the supposedly desperate future of newspapers. Now here’s a S.F. Chronicle column by Peter Scheer saying the same thing I tried to say, but Scheer says it better: i.e., if the future of newspapers is so bleak, why are so many smart people rushing to buy them? (The list includes Jack Welch, David Geffen, and as of today, Hank Greenberg.)

But the most interesting point in Scheer’s article is his proposal for how newspapers can protect their value: by placing a 24-hour embargo on their original reporting, not allowing it to appear on free Internet sites until a newspaper’s paying customers have had first crack at it.

“The point is not to remove content from the Internet,” Scheer writes, “but to delay its free release in that venue. A temporary embargo, by depriving the Internet of free, trustworthy news in real-time, would, I believe, quickly establish the true value of that information. Imagine the major Web portals — Yahoo, Google, AOL and MSN — with nothing to offer in the category of news except out-of-date articles from ‘mainstream’ media and blogosphere musings on yesterday’s news. Digital fish wrap.”

Imagine the uproar if Scheer’s proposal were to become real. We are all very spoiled, getting the world’s best news delivered to us, free and instantly. And it is very hard to make people pay for something they’re used to getting for free. (Just ask AOL; on the other hand, we pay plenty now for bottled water.) From what I know, most newspapers are moving in the opposite direction that Scheer supports. But it is a very intriguing idea, maintaining the value of a besieged commodity simply by shifting the time frame of its use.

It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to produce good reporting. Most people who consume good reporting don’t seem to know this, or care to know it. But they will certainly figure it out if the good reporting begins to disappear because media owners can no longer provide the kind of product we’ve become accustomed to getting for free. Somehow I can’t see U.S. citizens willing to support the reporting tax that the U.K. levies to support the BBC. Compared to that tax, a 24-hour Internet embargo looks mighty cheap.