This Year's Model

You can always tell when media people are getting really desperate, because they start babbling about their new "model." When they use this word—and lately they're using it incessantly—they don't seem to realize how much they sound like new-car commercials.

At least car ads sell a tangible product. The new models offered up by media types aren't products at all. They're business models, schemes for turning a profit on the stubbornly unprofitable Internet.

You've got your "paid-subscription" model, which says: Pay us, and you can see our stuff. And you've got your "premium-content" model, which says: Pay us, and you can see special stuff that our nonpaying readers can't see ( promises access to "premium-only galleries of erotic art and photography," which I believe translates as: "Hey, big fella, for 30 bucks, I'll show ya a real good time.") Then there's the "micropayment" model, which asks readers to throw small change at Web sites they love, either out of charity or because they desperately want a tiny bit of content that seems worth, say, a nickel.

Each of these models will probably succeed in some cases. There will always be a lucrative market for specialized content that helps people make money in their line of work. People in the business of politics and policy are paying considerable cash to subscribe to, and investment types are ponying up for access to The Wall Street Journal's Web site. As long as there are 15-year-old males, there will be a lucrative market for "galleries of erotic art and photography." And paying a microscopic bit of your net worth for some practical factoid you need right now makes perfect sense.

But none of these models addresses the most interesting question about Web content, which is, What's going to happen to the really high-end stuff? Behind the debate about media on the Web lurks a fear that, in the new information world, there might be no place for great content—journalism of the higher orders. Because it can't support itself. Slate magazine, one of the smartest and liveliest journalistic sites on the Net (and one that has paid me money for writing), couldn't persuade its readers to pay for subscriptions, and continues relying on the kindness of owner Microsoft. The Washington Post and The New York Times are carrying costly, unprofitable Web versions, which are free to anyone with a browser. Countless small intellectual/literary magazines have been started on the Web, to nobody's (financial) enrichment.

What's surprising about all this is that it's surprising to anyone. High-end content has never been especially lucrative. Yes, big newspapers have long been profit machines, but they are not pure high-end vehicles. If you tried to sell a version of The Washington Post that featured only the paper's most elite work—the really penetrating news pieces, the brainiest columnists—it would fail miserably. What pulls most people into the paper is stuff of a far lower brow: comics, sports scores, recipes, wedding announcements, crosswords, Ann Landers.

Beyond newspapers, the rest of the high end is miserably unremunerative and always has been. The New Yorker magazine sucks cash from the Newhouse media empire. The New Republic would be lucky to break even. Some of the most famous literary and political magazines were so perennially unattractive to investors, they were finally adopted by nonprofits. Harper's Magazine and Mother Jones are in this category.

High-end doesn't sell hugely, for a very simple reason: It's high-end, with an audience that is, by definition, limited. And the model for this kind of content is already with us, and has been for years. In the early days of television, the network news divisions weren't even expected to turn a profit. They were the high end, and chronically in the red, while the Milton Berle Show and other less-serious fare brought in the bucks. Without Jack Benny, no Edward R. Murrow. For today's analogue, look no further than C-SPAN, the news outfit underwritten by the American cable industry. C-SPAN is all cost for the cable industry, no profit, and any value it gives to its funders is purely in public relations. But that's no trifle. For cable billionaires, C-SPAN is a public relations boon, their "gift to the nation," as it's sometimes put.

Watching a recent installment of C-SPAN's American Writers series, a show about Emerson and Thoreau, I got to thinking that, PR benefits aside, this really is a gift. The show, broadcast live from Walden Pond and featuring scholar Robert Richardson, was not just substantial, it was riveting, in the strangely artless way that C-SPAN is riveting. One caller wanted to know whether it was true that Ho Chi Minh read Emerson. Another, an Old South revanchist, called to trash the transcendentalists for admiring John Brown. This is great media, and, of course, it doesn't earn a dime.

Maybe the C-SPAN model points to how quality media will make it in the new age. Big companies will make their real money from truly lucrative mass-market products, and give away the good stuff. Just as Microsoft now makes billions from software and gives away Slate. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Slate Editor Michael Kinsley noted that the old media (newspapers, magazines, television) are constantly giving away content, and suggested this might be the wave of the future on the Net. Perhaps The Washington Post will continue to earn big bucks for its print version and always give away its Web version. OK, I realize this last example is an absurd suggestion. But wouldn't it be nice?