How to Save Newspapers and Other Legacy Media

Imagine if online media was offered the same way that television is.

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I bumped up against my monthly 20-article limit on the New York Times website yesterday.

Needless to say, I won't be reading anymore New York Times articles until 2012—save for excerpts and quotes embedded in other media.

It's not that I'm unwilling to pay for content I like to consume. With the exception of a brief period of frenzied downloading when Napster was all the rage in 2000, I've made it a point to buy music. (Truthfully, since the legally-sanctioned Spotify arrived on the scene a few months ago, I haven't bought much music, but that's another story.) I subscribe to Netflix. I have a daily subscription to the Washington Post.

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At a certain point, I just don't want to be inconvenienced anymore, and it's obvious that the vast majority of heavy media users feel the same way.

It seems to me that the model of discrete subscriptions to individual publications has got to go. The legacy media companies are all in the same snowbound wagon caravan, and they're slowly cannibalizing each other.

For a while now, there's been talk of media companies forming a "cartel"—that is, agreeing en masse, and at roughly the same time, not to give away their content online. If they could all synchronize their digital firewalls, they would collectively, as an industry, be able to protect themselves from the same marauders.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

Yet talk of cartelization has remained just that—talk.

The basic idea is sound, but it's only half the battle. There's still the all-important burden of discrete payments.

The solution is bundle subscriptions.

Think of how most of us channel-surf while watching TV: a sitcom here, some cable news there, over to a boutique documentary and then finally, perhaps, to the tail-end of some flick you've already seen on one of the premium movie channels.

You pay a monthly fee to your cable provider, and it all comes through the same pipes: the highbrow, the lowbrow, the middlebrow, and possibly the vile and unmentionable. (The bundle model is not without its problems and critics, but I don't see it disappearing anytime soon.)

[See a slide show of the top 10 most hated news commentators.]

Isn't this exactly how we consume news and commentary online?

So why can't we have a similar subscription model? Why can't I pay, say, $50 a month and get unlimited access to the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, and who-knows-how-many-other publications? This doesn't mean that the Times will no longer compete with the Washington Post; they can continue to compete for advertising dollars and eyeballs, just like the broadcast and cable channels do.

Maybe there can be a series of different bundles, based on interest and preference—just like there are competing premium movie-channel packages.

Digitally-bundled media subscriptions might have a salutary impact on smaller, elite print publications, such as book reviews and academic journals. A bundle that includes the New Yorker magazine could include the New York Review of Books, for example, or maybe Foreign Affairs. The Weekly Standard, National Review, and Commentary could team up with the Claremont Review.

I'm thinking out loud here, and I realize there are hurdles. There's still the delicate issue of how to deal with the news aggregators. What would Drudge Report and Huffington Post links send readers to? Some kind of truncated summary with, in turn, a link to the subscriber service?

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And who would administer the new subscriptions? The broadband companies (that would doubtless have a lot of people worried)? Some new startup?

Again, I'm only thinking out loud.

The point is, until access to legacy media becomes aligned with how people actually consume it—in a nonlinear, passive, haphazard fashion—the likelihood of people paying for it is going to vanish completely.

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