The Pulse | A better bailout

  
Column by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

The talk about a government bailout for the news media – and yes, there’s been plenty of talk on that of late – is bunk.

Yeah, I’m known for being direct.

It’s bunk, balderdash, for those thesaurically challenged, it’s pure crap.

Which isn’t to say that I’d turn down $100,000 in free money if you offered it to me. I’m also in addition to being direct not somebody who was born yesterday.

But there is a much better solution to what ails the news media today.

Two words: antitrust exemption.

Let us collude on delivery mechanisms, is what I’m getting at.

 

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The future of news media in the United States is obvious. Everybody has gone to the web. I interviewed a local TV-news director for a story on his operation recently, and he told me, essentially, that the operation isn’t TV news, it’s 24-hour news delivered on platforms including TV, the Internet, mobile phones, and I get the idea that he’d hire a skywriter if he thought it would increase his audience share.

I take a similar approach at the AFP, and I see others here in the local market and the media universe at large doing the same. The day and age of people waiting for the morning paper or evening news to find out what’s going on is over. No putting the toothpaste back in the tube on that one.

The reality to our new media day and age is that we let things develop to the point where we’ve gotten our customers used to the product being made available to them for free, and we justified that at the outset based on how things have always worked for us. Namely, the eyeballs on our individual media attract advertising dollars from entities that want to reach those eyeballs with their messages.

Except that the heightened competition for those eyeballs has become has led to confusion on the people with the big bucks who wonder if they’re getting the bang for the investments that they used to.

It used to be that I could advertise my business on the TV and on the radio and in print, choose two of those three, choose one of those three, or do it myself with direct mail or by standing on the street corner and hoping for the best.

But when the TV station considers itself a 24-7 breaking-news source on the web and on TV, and and the radio station is a 24-7 breaking-news source on the web and over the airwaves, and the newspaper is a 24-7 breaking-news source really encompassing all three … er, um …

And then I can do direct mail on Facebook or by setting up a newsletter list that reaches people a helluva lot cheaper than any of the above …

We may never see a working media-business model that relies on advertising as the primary revenue driver again.

Which means – we’ve got to go back to our customers. Who are already used to paying for TV, and who 30 years ago would have ever thought that would have been the case? You had ABC, CBS and NBC, and they were free. Now we pay $100 a month to watch TV and don’t bat an eye. And the same consumers who supposedly expect “information to be free,” according to those in the industry who doubt we will ever be able to get a cent of money from people merely for the right to look at what we have to say, have been paying for newspapers and magazines for generations. So it’s not as if we’re talking about suddenly charging people for the air they breathe or anything.

The holdup to getting the foundation to the future of the news media in place is reminiscent of something I learned in sociology class in college called the “free-rider problem.” What we’re seeing right now is entities like the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg putting their web content behind a pay wall, and their local competitors either watching with interest to see if it works before they jump on board, or TV3 up in Harrisonburg running house ads reminding viewers that their site is still free.

News flash: We’re all going to need to go in this direction eventually. I think that’s been made perfectly clear to us the past year or so.

We’re holding back because, well, instinct tells me that I should like my 4,000 unique readers a day, and not do anything that would cut that readership down, say, to 400 or 500 a day. Which makes sense in any business context, right? I mean, what good is any business move that cuts your exposure 90 percent?

But what about the factor of the bigger customer base being basically freeloaders because I’m not charging them anything? And the 400 or 500, well, smaller though they might be in number, are actually engaged in regular transactions of money with me?

 

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This gets me back to the talk about bailouts. It’s well-intentioned, sure, because news organizations play an important role in our civic life. Example from our organization: Our story on the series of negative audit reports on the work of the sitting Waynesboro city treasurer is being credited with her defeat at the polls in her re-election bid last week. These kinds of things are happening every day because news organizations have people at City Hall and the state legislature and Capitol Hill and on Main Street and elsewhere asking questions and demanding answers. We can’t maintain our status as a vigorously free society without a vigorously active news media playing the role it has here since well before the Revolution.

But I don’t want taxpayer money to muddy up the waters. And we don’t need it to. Give us an antitrust exemption that gives those of us who want to work together the ability to develop collaboratively the delivery mechanisms that can allow us to work toward maintaining profitability as we go about our daily task of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, as Finley Peter Dunne once put our job so well.

No dollars change hands, no feeling or any implication of quid pro quo can taint the process. The appeal should be bipartisan – Democrats have always generally liked the media, even as it has come to lean more to the right in recent years; and Republicans like business, and especially like being able to say that they did something to take regulations out of an industry’s path toward sustainability.

So let’s do it, and sometime soon hope that we can reserve the time we’re spending handwringing over whether we’re going to be here next year for what we’ve for so long been so good at – handwringing over what the idiots in City Hall or the legislature or Congress are up to today.