My wife and I had a brief spell of loyalty to print sources in the Netherlands, first a subscription of around two years to what is considered the country’s most intellectual daily newspaper, and recently to a weekly magazine that focuses on news background and analysis, [as well as] culture. We found things we liked in both, but also, increasingly, articles that disappointed or annoyed us, up to the point that we cancelled our subscriptions.
In this respect, the good content suffers from being in a bundle with the bad content, and the net result is that we didn’t find the bundles as a whole worth our loyalty, time or money. Instead, we focus on particular critics and journalists that write at a consistently high level, and follow them wherever they go. That is where we reach the Web [see "The Style of the Web"], since it offers a convenient way for readers to track journalists. In that sense, the mere presence of the Web is competition to bundled media.
What we haven’t seen much is a pay-per-view model for individual articles, in the way that is often used in academic journals. We envision a system in which the online branches of journalistic media work together with a payment and distribution service that provides access to articles on an individual basis using a kind of ticket system. You buy ten “article tickets” for $1 each (or whatever the market decides) which you can spend on any of the articles in any of the newspapers, magazines, or blogs that have signed up to the service. Once your tickets are gone, you have to buy new ones. That way, you can combine paid-for access to quality journalism with the freedom of not having a subscription to only one [publisher]. The main advantage [for publishers] is that it will be possible for a news source to get money from me for single articles, even if I don’t want to read and pay for the rest.
The obvious side effect is an increased level of competition between individual articles rather than bundles. As illustrated by the success of the Guy Fieri restaurant review in the NYT, style and tone can be a major driving factor in the network-based dissemination of articles through social media. This is certainly true, but we should not underestimate the (admittedly smaller) proportion of the readership who does value content and substance. These people too are increasingly relying on the Web for communication, and for sharing interesting articles with their friends and acquaintances. I don’t see myself not sharing an article to my Facebook friends and Twitter followers because I think it wouldn’t be funny enough, even though I think it’s got some quality content to tell.
That said, the funny, snarky stuff will have an easier time drawing big audiences, especially if they continue to present their text free of charge. These articles are in direct competition with the more substantial ones over our “free time,” and this is a battle that quality journalism may not be able to win. Instead, perhaps quality online journalism needs to move out of that competitive zone, and back into the zone of “paid time.” I think that will only work if paid publications embrace the erratic networked nature of the online world and start offering individually paid-for articles, instead of only relying on subscription models.
A final observation—playing devil’s advocate, perhaps the paid-for model will exacerbate competition on yet another level: within a publication itself. The most-read, and therefore most-money-generating, journalists will perhaps be those who combine style and substance, more so than those who rely on substance alone.
The question is if that would be a bad thing. I’m not sure.