How to make money from news, in all its formats, was another theme running throughout the sessions, with implications for many categories of traditionally user-paid content business models represented among the Information Industry Summit registrants. The first day set up a sort of thesis-antithesis: as previously noted, Michael Wolff reliably staked out a position at one end of the spectrum – “the primary strategic question is how we can pay less or nothing for content.” Google has established an absolutely new model. Not only that, but: traditional news organizations, he asserted, are “finished,” whether in a year or 18 months “at the outside.”
Not surprisingly, Vivek Shah, who heads Time Inc.’s digital news business, took a contrary view. Acknowledging that “newsgathering as a way of driving revenue is being undermined,” he argued that the result is a greater emphasis on voice, personality, and point of view, and asserted that the original Time was “a version of the Internet” – that is, a way to digest the information plethora of a different era (“28 daily newspapers in Chicago”). Scale matters, he said, in the ability to address specific audiences. As evidence, he stated that [according to at least some measurements] the top 10 news sites on the Web are all traditional brands, including Time, Inc. properties with a combined 26 million monthly visitors.
From the “high end” of the news business, Dow Jones Newswires SVP and managing editor Neal Lipshutz insisted on the endurance of a paid model for high-value content, including news, and argued for a return to subscription pricing by the leading daily newspapers [other than the WSJ and FT, whose business/financial focus adds another dimension to the perceived conversion value of their information]: “You have to put the genie back in the bottle.” Steve Lohr of the New York Times mused about the notion of the “top 5 papers” jointly agreeing to charge for online subscriptions, and later noted that for the online-print advertising revenue crossover model to work, “you need a lot more numbers” in the audience.
Robert Merry, president and editor-in-chief of Congressional Quarterly, also insisted that newspapers had “missed the boat” by ceding the circulation fight to their readers. But he cast a skeptical eye on lamentations about end of professional journalism, noting that the familiar model of “objective” journalistic brands has been a relatively short-lived phenomenon. We may be returning to the kind of environment he saw from his recent writing about the 1840s, when all US newspapers were clearly – and usually fiercely – partisan; and readers were, as today, free to form their opinions from multiple sources, or have them confirmed by particular, reliably partisan, voices.