iTunes will not be the savior of the news media

I was listening to Fresh Air last night on the author of new book on google.  It started with a nice lay person description of a lot of what Google has been working on, and how the company evolved into the worlds biggest advertising firm.  When the laundry list of Google properties got to Google News, the interviewy made the following statement:

On the other hand, there is evidence that it can be done, and
Apple’s iTunes is a classic piece of evidence in this regard. I mean,
the idea that music – I mean, just think about five years ago, the
music companies were suing their customers on college campuses for what
they called illegally downloading their music. And it was illegal, by
the way. You know, they were breaking the law to do that, but it was so
commonplace that no one thought it was against the law to do it.

Well,
Apple comes along and they said we’ll charge you only $.99 and you can
pick the music you want. You could listen to a little segment of it
before you buy it, and you could buy individual songs. You don’t have
to get stuck with buying an entire CD for X many more dollars. And it
took off like gangbusters, and it’s been a great success for Apple and
something the customers who were used to free music have accepted. So
there are some models that suggest it can be done, but it won’t be
easy.

When looking for a general purpose solution to the fall off of newspapers, there are 3 models that are always put out there which “prove” that paywalls will work: The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and iTunes.  And they are all wrong, and present an over simplification.  The issue is, none of these things apply generally to the local newspaper model.  Clay Shirky does a better job of explaining why than I, but I will take a stab at the iTunes front.

When you buy (if you buy) music, you are buying a durable good.  It’s something that in 2 years, you’ll still probably be listening to, and yes, in this disposable age, that’s considered durable :).  It’s something you listen to dozens if not hundreds of times.  For this pattern, $0.99 seems like a fair trade off.  But even for that low low price, studies show that the people that buy the most music, as the ones that download the most first.  You can charge for music because it’s not ephemeral.  News paper articles aren’t like this.  When was the last time you reread a news article from your local paper 10 times.

I heard a great statement recently when listening to The Media Project, which looked at the Titanic.  This issue with the Titanic wasn’t that it was too big, or going too fast, or not enough life boats.  The issue was that 15 years prior the wright brothers invented the airplane.  Even if the Titanic hadn’t sunk, the company would have gone out of business in a decade anyway, because they were in the wrong line of business.

What this means for local news is sort of scary, but as Clay Shirky is found of saying: “A revolution doesn’t go from point A to B… it goes from point A to chaos, then after a long time someone figures out what B is.”

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