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Here’s the premise — free news is killing the news business, but it won’t die because in the nick of time a change will be made and the news won’t be free any longer.
This column by David Carr of the New York Times compares today’s newspapers to the music labels of the near past, when they were being wiped out by free downloading and file sharing. Then Apple’s Steve Jobs rode to the rescue with iTunes, and the revenue began to stream again. “He has been accused of running roughshod over the music labels, which are a fraction of their former size,” says Carr. “But they are still in business. Those of us who are in the newspaper business could not be blamed for hoping that someone like him comes along and ruins our business as well by pulling the same trick: convincing the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspapers sites that it’s time to pay up.”
That’s not too much to hope for — a world without news is as unimaginable as a world without music. So what we need is some sort of iPod-like device that downloads newspapers. Carr tells of some such gizmo that he’s heard is in the pipeline, and he adds, “Now all we need is a business model to go with it.”
Slate’s Jack Shafer, in a column that enthusiastically advances Carr’s idea, says publishers need to join forces “to create a technical standard for over-the-air delivery of books and publications.” Pretty much taking it for granted that the hardware will be built — he notes that Amazon’s Kindle can download newspapers now but wasn’t designed for that and doesn’t do it well — Shafer thinks hard about the business model. “Publishers could sell their editions directly to readers or license them to aggregators,” he says, “much as the music labels license their tunes to iTunes and Amazon. The aggregators could bundle publications, giving you a financial incentive to subscribe to, say, the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal all at once.”
As for the papers, they need to design online versions of themselves that readers will want to pay for. The current Web sites won’t do, but Shafer raves about Times Reader, the electronic version of the New York Times, which he uses daily.