Saturday, February 21, 2009

Information rich, media poor

I don’t think I can take any more news. Not in my brain, but in my pocketbook.

Like most Americans, I’ve been glumly looking at my bank accounts, retirement plan and other assets. The result is the realization that I would have done better with a coffee can buried in the backyard.

That search also led me to take a closer look at what I pay for information. I was surprised, but newspaper publishers should be terrified.

Let me preface this by noting that I am a proud member of the embattled middle class, with a professor’s paycheck that still hasn’t matched what I earned in the industry.

I am also a lover of newspapers. I subscribe to two and read others online. But it is not the newspapers that are taking the bite from my wallet. It is all those electronic services I consider basic utilities.

The National Cable and Television Association says the average price of expanded basic cable is about $44 a month and digital averages $60. I pay $84 for digital cable here in Columbia, MO. My wife and I have jobs that require an Internet connection that runs about twice the price of normal broadband in Columbia. We pay $140 a month.cell bill

Alas, it was Steve Jobs who finally did in my budget. I succumbed to those alluring Apple ads last Christmas and bought iPhones for my wife and me. Just $170 per month, paid with a nervous smile. That is not far from the national average of $60 per month – per cell phone user and a bargain since my son moved out of the house.

Hardware costs could make the total zoom much higher but the laptop, the wireless router and the cell phone handsets are not monthly charges. Yet.

I doubt that I am the only cost-conscious citizen who conducted a recession excavation of the bill basket. But, what I found surprised me. I pay nearly twice as much for digital media each month than I do for newspaper subscriptions in a year.

I also doubt that I am the only cheapskate who turned down the New York Times offer of $13.40 a week for arguably the finest journalism in the world. Too much money.

But though I could buy a sports car for the $394 I pay each month to look at passing electrons, I don’t think of it as a luxury. I put all that whizzbang technology in the same category as the light switch on the living room wall. The home wouldn’t be a home without it.

After thinking about my dependency on all this interconnectivity, I’ve come to believe that few of us even think of those technology services as “media” costs and instead lump them with our other utilities.” With apologies to my other colleagues trying desperately to monetize online news, I think we are on the wrong track. Americans only want news and information. But they value information delivery systems.

It may be time for journalists to bite the bullet and concede that content is priceless. As in without a price that the public will pay.

The television and movie industries figured this out long ago by demanding a lucrative cut of cable revenues. People are willing to pay for delivery, but not to buy a television program.

The anarchistic-by-design Internet laughs at Web-wide relief for newspapers. However, many Webheads concede that without newspapers and their reporters, there would be little news content to deliver. So there is a small chance content providers will some day be able to cut a deal with Internet Service Providers.

Perhaps, however, a better route would be to develop a valued delivery system for our legacy print editions. The Web is driving subscriptions down, but print editions still hold marketable appeal and generally outdraw newspaper Web sites.

If our problem is more in our circulation system than in our content, it may be time to blow up the tradition of kid-on-a-bike/motor route carrier/coin-fed news stand. Like cable and Internet, perhaps the newspaper should emphasize the value of an information stream rather than the content itself. Could print newspapers have a delivery structure like an ISP? For a single rate to a delivery company (Newspaper Service Provider/NSP), could I get any newspaper I wanted on whichever days I wanted?

Perhaps that “NSP” could even be the local ISP or cable company.

Far fetched, perhaps. But I once thought the idea of using my cell phone as a bubble level was beyond the pale.

No comments: