Netflix for news
Who pays for what you read?
What's the Netflix model for news? For a rising-but-still-reasonable price, Netflix offers a vast spread of both original and previously-created content for on-demand consumption anywhere, anytime. At a time when news outlets are facing a lot of budgetary pain, it's a model worth some additional study, especially for those who believe in the vitality of the free press.
■ First and foremost is the problem of high subscription fees: News outlets keep vacillating wildly back and forth between giving everything away for free and trying to charge prices for digital access that match what they used to charge for dead-tree editions of newspapers.
■ Given a reasonable subscription option, many consumers would gladly pay for news from more outlets, but in most cases, there's no such thing as the $5 or $10 annual "supporting reader" deal. That's a shame, because it means that many people subscribe to one or two high-priced services and then pay nothing to the rest, even when many of us really do value local news reporting from communities other than our own hometowns.
■ It's criminal that there's no subscription reciprocity for people who really do believe in paying for local news -- but not at full price in every single market. Zoos, aquariums, and museums have this figured out. Toll roads in more than a dozen states have figured out how to harmonize electronic toll systems. So why is this so elusive for news outlets?
■ Basic economic thinking would suggest that a product with a high fixed production cost (reporters' and editors' salaries) and almost zero marginal distribution cost (like news when it is delivered digitally) ought to focus on collecting small payments from the largest number of customers possible. The option for micropayments and other forms of goodwill support would be welcomed by people who think news is valuable.
■ Failing to get our heads wrapped around this issue is going to lead, sooner or later, to a news landscape that either depends almost entirely upon charitable support and benefactor (or vanity) ownership -- or we'll risk that the only "news" that is available for many will be whatever serves someone's interests.
■ Environmental news coverage, just for example, is already heavily influenced by opposing forces like the Heartland Institute on one side and the Environmental Working Group on the other. Both can claim to be "non-profit", but that doesn't mean "neutral" nor "disinterested" nor "objective". It just means that nobody literally owns the organization that is the source of the material being served up.
■ This could have a much more nefarious tinge, as well: A lot of Americans respect the BBC, but not every state-run broadcaster shares the values of a free society. When you see China Daily being distributed in the United States, or CCTV on hotel televisions, you're seeing what the Communist Party of China wants you to see. If we don't find reasonable economic ways of sustaining lots of private-sector news coverage in the United States, we're at risk of seeing the free (whatever its source may be) crowd out the good.