All the news that’s fit to buy

The New York Times, according to one of its own, is close to deciding whether to try charging for online content. If you assume that the best way to bolster the future of news is to figure out how to get people to pay for it online, then this is important – and a good thing if The Times does, in fact, try charging for content.

The only way to get people to start paying for content is for a few leaders to simply take the leap and start charging. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is implementing a plan to do so. Having The Times follow would only be good for the movement.

Can it work? That’s the big debate in media. Many think content wants to be free. Others, like myself, think consumers want it to be free primarily because they’ve been trained that content comes cheap. What nobody knows is how much people will actually pay, or whom they would pay, for real journalism.

If the news is to find its footing again – that is, if anyone is ever going to figure out a 21st Century business model by which journalism can flourish – the starting point is knowledge of the true value that journalism has to its end users. This is something that’s been obscured for the past 150 years.

Will consumers place enough value on it that they are willing to pay the full, unsubsidized cost of sending  investigative reporters to do what they do (and defending against the inevitable lawsuits that are a byproduct of their work)? It would be nice. It would simplify the quandary of media executives, who are now gathering in solemn charrettes in search of a bew design for profitable media.

But the truth is that nobody knows. We don’t know what a newspaper would actually cost if paid for fully by readers? Or how its mission, staffing levels, range of focus and intensity of reporting might be adjusted over time to reflect the market-based measure of its value. How would it be distributed? How often would it be published? Who would its readers be?

None of these questions can be answered until enough media simply jump in and try to find out. Until now, few (the Wall Street Journal being the only one of any critical mass that I can come up with) have taken that risk. If The New York Times is getting ready to give it a try, desperation in the business may be reaching some kind of tipping point.

I’m fully confident that real journalism has a significant societal value. The problem is that it’s always been paid for indirectly. Once that value is untethered from the indirect means by which media have always monetized it (that is, advertising), then the real work can begin to right-size the industry and focus efforts where they deliver the most value.

There is real risk that the result would be even more “circular media,” in which celebrities are first manufactured and then covered by the same media organizations as if they were of real consequence  (Jon & Kate and Lindsay Lohan represent two train wrecks in which the front of the train has crashed into its own caboose).

But I’m more optimistic than that. I have enough faith left that if news businesses got serious about charging for the news, they would eventually achieve market balance – knowing how much to spend, and optimizing that for the best impact, as defined by consumers.

I’m hoping the Gray Lady of New York is ready to give it a try.

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