Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Industry, scholarly and policy discussions about the future of the news industry in North America and Europe continue to focus on how news enterprises can sustain themselves in the 21st century. Publishers keep asserting that things will be fine if they can erect pay walls and charge for news online and they argue that governments should provide legal protections for online news so they can make news a viable digital business product.

Their approach is wrong and ignores the fundamental reality that news has never been a commercially viable product because most of the public has been, and remains, unwilling to pay for news. Consequently, news has always been funded with income based on its value for other things.

Historically, the first collection and dissemination of news was funded in ancient times by emperors and kings, who used governors and officials throughout their realms to collect news and information and send it to the seat of power. Emissaries, consuls, and ambassadors collected foreign news and information in places important for trade or seen as potential threats to the realms. In this Imperial Finance Model, news and information were collected and shared with officials throughout the realms to assist in governance activities. This revenue model was based on official financial support because it served the interests of the state.

In the Middle Ages, a Commercial Elite Finance model developed in which wealthy merchants hired correspondents in cities and states with which they traded to collect information about political and economic developments relevant to their trade. Linen, porcelain, sherry, and spice merchants used the news for commercial advantage and held it in confidence rather than sharing it with others.

In the 18th and 19th centuries a broader Social Elite Finance Model developed to support newspapers that served the needs of the aristocracy and widening merchant class. Even with high cover prices, this model news was not viable and newspapers were subsidized by commercial printing activities and income from other commercial activities, governments and political parties, and merchant associations.

The Mass Media Finance Model appeared in the late 19th and 20th century, made possible by the industrial revolution, urbanization, wage earning, and sale of finished goods. In this model news was provided for the masses at a small fee, but subsidized by advertising sales. Because most of the public was uninterested in day-to-day events and “hard” news, the bulk of newspaper content was devoted to sports, entertainment, lifestyle, and features that increased the willingness of the public to spend pennies for the product.

This mass media financing model remain the predominant model for financing news gathering and distribution, but its effectiveness is diminishing because the “mass” audience is becoming a “niche” audience in Western nations as those less interested in hard news continue abandoning newspapers for television, magazines, and the Internet. This is creating a great deal of uncertainty how society will subsidize and pay for journalism in the twenty-first century.

Focusing on news as a commercial product appears futile and commercial news providers would do well to put their efforts in creating other commercial activities that can subsidize news provision, such as events, education and training, bookstores, travel agencies, and a variety of merchandising activities. Many publishers subsidized news activities with these types of activities a century ago and some continue to do so. It is likely that news providers will rely on a far wider range of revenue streams in the future than merely on the consumer and advertising streams upon which they depend today.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Pink Floyd was always a unique rock group and understood its music as a form of artistic expression. It evolved from psychedelic music in the 1960s to progressive rock known for rock instrumental and acoustic effects in the 1970s. The group often saw their albums as integrated works of art in which subsequent tracks built upon earlier ones. They considered their entire recording to be art; that the ordering of tracks was part of the expression and should not be altered, and that the album should be enjoyed as a whole not merely as a collection of individual songs. Even the album covers got special artistic attention reflecting their content and experiences.

The band felt so strongly about the art of its music that it negotiated a contract with EMI that included a provision to “preserve the artistic integrity of the albums.”

Consumers obviously thought Pink Floyd got the art right, helping the group achieve 16 gold, 13 platinum, and 10 multi-platinum albums. Two of its albums sold more than 10 million copies. The group’s recordings are second only to the Beatles recordings in terms of their value, something not missed by the group’s label EMI.

With sales of digital downloads exploding (accounting for nearly $4 billion in industry sales last year), the record company saw gold in selling individual tracks from albums such as “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall”. It licensed Pink Floyd’s tracks for sale on iTunes. It was like EMI was cutting up a Kandinsky painting and selling the pieces individually.

The band wasn’t amused and headed to court. It argued that it albums were indivisible and that EMI had violated the contract with the group by splitting them up. EMI countered that it was all just a matter of the new way of doing business in the digital age and that the contemporary technology and business model made it necessary to do disaggregate the albums.

This week the court ruled in favor of Pink Floyd, awarding them $60,000 for the contract violation and $90,000 for legal costs. The court said EMI cannot distribute the group’s music "by any other means than the original album, without the consent of Pink Floyd."

The case is another in a long line of disputes over major media and online companies using content without appropriate permissions of copyright owners. These are the same companies that vigorously protect their own interests against individuals and other media companies and that regularly tell legislators they need more rights so they can protect the interests of authors, artists, and performers. The arrogance and duplicity could not be clearer.

It is also a stark reminder that most media enterprises are somewhat unhappy alliances between content creators—whether journalists, authors and writers, filmmakers or performers—and business creators who often have differing perspectives on the roles and functions that media perform for society and the individuals who use media for art and expression.