So let me start with one of the most ironic things I've seen recently: a magazine cover story titled, "How to Save Your Newspaper." What's so ironic about that? It was on the cover of the Feb. 16 issue of Time--a magazine that arguably could use some advice about saving itself. The issue was 58 pages, including front and back cover, and carried 14 and two-thirds ad pages, and I'm pretty sure one was a public-service freebie.
But the most significant "ad" in the issue was the mock "help wanted" ad illustrating the cover story written by former Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson, now ceo of the Aspen Institute. So what's the help he's dispensing? "Charging for content."
Okay, so Isaacson admits it's not a new idea, but his suggestion that it's the
economic salvation for print is flawed,
because it ignores even more fundamental changes that have occurred in the media marketplace since Henry Luce cofounded Time magazine. The supply of alternative, free options has grown exponentially, making a premium model a difficult proposition, especially for journalism. Yes, some consumers will pay something for some forms of premium content, but they have to be genuinely indispensable or offer value that cannot be obtained--for free--anywhere else.
Don't get me wrong. I love Time magazine. I really do. And I've been reading it even more devotedly for the past couple of years since they put me on their comp list, something that is likely to change after they read this column. The truth is, Time is an awesome product. The other truth is, I'd live without it if I had to pay for it. The real question is--how many things could I not afford to live without if they asked me to pay? I can only think of one: The New York Times. I stopped paying to subscribe to the Times a long time ago for one simple reason: They made it free for me to access online, and perhaps equally important, they made it easier for me to access because it was online.
The Times may test my loyalty soon. Right about when Isaacson's cover story hit the newsstands--and the Web--Times Editor Bill Keller began making noises that the Gray Lady might be rethinking its free online strategy. I think this would be a terrific mistake. Yes, they might actually get people like me to pay for it, but they would lose many more, reducing the reach, impact and stature that makes it a truly valuable paper--even if it's not printed on paper.
No, that model will not work much longer for the Times or Time. The right model might scare many with traditional mindsets. I recently had the opportunity to write about a bold experiment in that direction being conducted by another highly regarded journalism brand, U.S. News & World Report. Its President Bill Holiber and Editor Brian Kelly have effectively abandoned their traditional branded advertising sales model--or more to the point, they say it has abandoned newsweeklies--and they are trying a new performance-based model that so far appears to be working. They've killed the weekly print edition, and reorganized monthlies around five core franchises that are aligned to explicit commerce opportunities, and are either selling things directly to consumers or partnering with other third parties who can and are taking a piece of the action in the form of so-called online "lead generation." It's a radical move for a major journalism brand, but as U.S. News' Holiber and Kelly say, it may be the only way to make great journalism brands economically viable. I hope it works.