Jukebox Journalism

August 9, 2011

America’s newspaper companies just reported their second-quarter results, and the news was bad — again.

Gannett, McClatchy, the New York Times, the Washington Post — all saw print advertising shrink by 6 percent to 10 percent from the same time last year. Iowa-based Lee is on the verge of bankruptcy.

In some cases (e.g., the Times), there were encouraging signs of increased digital dollars. But it’s not enough to make up for the ongoing drop in print advertising, which still provides about 90 percent of a typical newspaper’s revenue.

The reason for the decline is clear: A lot of people have decided there’s no reason to pay $20 a month for the newspaper when they can get news for free on the Internet. But is that news really free?

Most of us pay anywhere from $50 to $80 a month for our cell phones, and a similar amount for an Internet connection. So a typical American is paying $100 or more every month for the electronic channels that allow them to access all that free news.

The music business has been hit just as hard by the Internet as newspapers have. With digital technology making it easy to share files, it seems like only suckers actually pay for music these days.

But the music business does have one thing going for it that newspapers don’t: a royalty system. For decades, composers and performers have gotten a tiny payment every time one of their songs is played on a jukebox or the radio, or is used in a movie or TV show.

It seems to me that the work of journalists is just as much an intellectual property as the work of songwriters. Why shouldn’t they — or their news organization — get royalties when that work is publicly disseminated via the Internet?

It would be impossible to police the millions of websites that populate the Internet. But it would be much easier to collect payments from the relative handful of Internet and mobile service providers.

If Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and anyone else who provides Web access were assessed a fee for transmitting the intellectual property of journalists, photographers and other artists, it could help keep substantive journalism alive. Sure, they’d probably pass it along to the consumer, and the result would be that you’d pay an extra buck or two a month on your phone or cable bill.

Seems like a pretty small price to help keep that “free” news coming.

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com.