Isaacson Insists Newspapers Can Still Be Saved

The former Time managing editor says he expects the digital revolution to drive Old Media to embrace business models that pay

When media lion Walter Isaacson penned a cover story in Time magazine's Feb. 5 issue titled "How to Save Your Newspaper," he fretted that the combination of economic hard times and increased reliance on the Internet were about to drive newspapers out of business.

Events since then have validated his concerns. Several major daily newspapers have shut down and even The Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times Co. (NYT), is threatened. But Isaacson, a former Time managing editor who is now chief executive of the policy think tank Aspen Institute, isn't as pessimistic about the future of media as you might expect.

During a conversation at the institute's Aspen Global Leadership Network conference in Aspen, Colo., Isaacson explained why he's optimistic about the future of media—thanks to the power of the Internet, new digital content creation tools, and the potential of so-called citizen journalism, where members of the public play an active role in gathering and disseminating news. "The digital revolution has given us tremendous new tools and opportunities," he says. "We just have to find some new business models that will allow creative people to make a decent living by taking advantage of these opportunities."

Storm over a Call for Micropayments

In his Time story, Isaacson noted that the crisis in journalism has reached "meltdown proportions." He admitted that even he, a news junkie, has stopped subscribing to The New York Times because he can get it for free online. He criticized the business model that most media enterprises have adopted—giving away content for free and hoping to pay the rent with advertising. He proposed that publishers charge for Internet content in a variety of ways, including one-click micropayment systems that ask readers to pay a small fee to read an article or view a video. He acknowledged that micropayments had been tried before with little success. But he argued that times have changed. Media companies are faced with collapse. They have to take bold action to save themselves.

Isaacson didn't expect his essay to provide the last word on new Internet media business models. His primary aim was to get people to think more seriously and urgently about solutions—to get a discussion going. And while some critics of his piece homed in on—and criticized—his call for micropayments, he pointed out to me that he didn't intend them to be the principal source of revenues. "It's one in an army of offerings, including subscriptions [and] licensing content to search engines," he says.

Should Citizen Journalism Pay?

Indeed, since the Time piece was published, other observers have proposed some novel business models. In April, for instance, media innovator Steven Brill and two partners launched Journalism Online, a business that plans to charge readers and viewers in a variety of ways, including subscriptions, day passes, and payments for individual articles supplied by a variety of publishers.

Citizen journalism is an "enormously important" supplement to the output of media companies—though not a replacement, Isaacson says. He said he doesn't want it to be the province of well-off people who do it for the "ego kick" or as a service. And citizen journalists should be paid for their work, Isaacson says. "I want a way for people to have ways to make a little money at it," he says.

In Aspen, with mountains towering all around and the sound of a rushing stream as a backdrop, the trials of journalism seemed far away—for a moment. Then I thought of my friends whose jobs at The Boston Globe are on the line, threatened by none other than the New York Times Co. The barbarians are at the gates. Sadly, the barbarians are us.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.