Reuters and the Paid News/Free News Debate

From Matthew Ingram comes this write-up about Reuters and their decision to shut down their ambitious ‘Reuters Next’ online service. As the article explains, the decision “stems from an ongoing conflict between the money-making subscription business and the money-losing consumer web operation.” In other words, Reuters makes its money not by a showrooom-esque web service but by its actual paid subscription plan, which is increasingly facing competition from ‘free’ news.

Whenever I read stories like this, I always think about how we get the news in our house—we have neither cable nor newspaper, but yet we both remain well-informed. The Beloved hears snippets on the radio (paid for by advertising) and then looks up topics which interest him if he wants more detail. He tells me he’s been reading a lot about Syria lately. Now that the Toronto Star is crippled by a paywall, I have been using Apple’s Newstand app to subscribe to a local commuter paper that is given away for free at the subway station. It, like the radio, is little more than a capsule rehash of the big stories, but it keeps me up to date on the basic stuff and I can look up anything which interests me later.

And where do we look it up? Doesn’t someone, at some point, have to pay a writer to produce the content. In a sense, yes. I think the Metro News I have been reading gets most of its content from the Toronto Star, ironically enough, and the short blurbs are meant to entice you to buy the bigger paper. But of course, there is no shortage of free content either, and even in the absence of professional news sources offering it for free, there is always a blogger or two with a tale to tell.

And for the local news, there is always the people-spread kind. Whenever there is a big storm coming, my co-workers are always the first to tell me because our work could be affected—there is always one storm a year that threatens to close the school completely. And in the absence of that, there is my newspaper-reading parents, who call us up and ask us if we’ve put some bottles of water in the fridge. Nobody is going to NOT know about the storm just because they don’t pay for a paper, are they?

I do think that aggregation services like Reuters have worth, but maybe their value is in quantity, not quality. If everybody has to subscribe—from the Star on down to the free Metro paper—they can earn enough to make covering the basics both profitable for them and affordable for their subscribers. Then the free Metro paper can actually earn enough through advertising to pay a few journalists to go beyond the basics and cover a little more.

1 Comment on Reuters and the Paid News/Free News Debate

  1. Keep in mind that the old, advertising-fed media had serious problems. A prominent advertiser was often treated with kid gloves. Politicians could buy the endorsements of some papers with a large enough ad buy. JFK did just that with black newspapers in 1960.

    I saw influence in action when I was working for a security firm in Dallas that had two of its employees robbing our clients while they were on vacation. The story was front page news, but our executives used their connections to ensure that the stories did not mention the company’s name.

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