by Max Brantley
Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman took his campaign against free access to newspapers on the Internet to the editorial writers conference in Little Rock yesterday. I feel his pain. Really.
It will be interesting as the years pass whether his currently lonely opposition to providing news content free on the web can turn around the industry.
(PS: His statement that giving away content is a failed business model on the Internet has an interesting parallel in the weekly free alternative press in the U.S. The country is littered -- ha, ha -- with free weeklies that make profits ranging from modest to enviably obscene. Hussman himself acknowledged the reality a little more than a year ago by starting a free weekly of his own. UPDATE: And how could I forget that he just started a magazine that he mails free to the right rich folks.)
But a couple of points. 1) Hussman's paid Internet practices are less the explanation for an uptick in D-G circulation over the last 10 years than the purchase of new circulation in Northwest Arkansas by acquisition of Fayetteville and Bentonville newspapers. He himself noted a dip in penetration in his core market, Pulaski County. 2) As the link above demonstrates, Hussman follows a multifaceted Internet policy he didn't appear to mention to editorial writers. The Northwest Arkansas content IS available free on the Internet and that includes a great deal of the content of the Little Rock newspaper. Just go to www.nwanews.com
Newspapers have been crippled less by free web content than by the devastating impact of on-line classified advertising. Newspapers' loss of young readers was well underway long before the Internet came along. Charging for web content now -- as a new strategy -- would be a risky move. Many simply won't pay. They'll turn to the growing list of options. TV stations, for example, are becoming one-stop news sites in many markets, with news, weather, sports scores and, some places, even obituaries.
On the other hand, Hussman can afford as head of a family enterprise to settle for a lower profit margin than corporate media groups with their hungry stockholders and debt loads. Over the long haul, if he's right in running against the tide, his jackpot will be enormous.
Over the long, long haul (and that haul may be shorter than I think), you have to presume we'll see the end of expensive paper and presses someday.