When Rob Huesca saw me last night at Liberty Bar, where I had just finished my weekly dose of tasty lamb burger for the evening, he announced he had figured out this whole “how to save newspapers” quandary that has gripped the media industry for the last few decades or so.
By the end of our conversation, I halfway believed him.
Rob is a communications professor at Trinity University, and he said newspapers could learn a lot from radio.
When you hear a song on radio, the artist gets paid for it. Radio stations pay licensing fees to entities like Broadcast Music Inc. Every time a radio station plays a song from, say, Kidd Rock, BMI pays Kidd Rock.
For the Internet, what if newspapers and magazines formed their own version of BMI? This consortium would collect a modest monthly subscription fee from readers — Rob threw out a random figure of $12. Readers who subscribe to this service can read any article in any publication anywhere in the country that signs up with the consortium. And for every web hit, the consortium pays a little bit of money to the publication.
Right now, most newspapers are giving away their Web content for free, which is in keeping with the spirit of the Internet, but the ad revenue from newspaper Web sites isn’t enough to pay for fully staffed newsrooms. So there’s been all kinds of talk about how the media can successfully charge for online content, leading to debates about things like micropayments, online subscriptions, and voluntary donations.
Rob might be on to something but to make his idea work a lot of newspapers would have to agree to participate. Otherwise, readers would simply gravitate to the free publications. It’d also be nice if people who subscribe to the paper-version of the publication could get a discount or even free subscription to the Internet version. It would give people a reason to subscribe to their physical newspaper, at a time when newspapers are shrinking and there are fewer and fewer reasons to subscribe.
A BMI model might encourage newspapers to aim for the lowest common denominator to drive up Web traffic, and we could end up with more celebrity stories about people like — heaven forbid — Kidd Rock.
Or maybe Rob is right and this would be a convenient, relatively painless way for readers to continue getting news from anywhere in the country, while at the same time helping to pay for the expense of reporting the news.