Welcome to the Newspaper Oligopoly

Quite recently, the New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times were three of America's best newspapers. Now, they're each facing potentially era-ending challenges. Is there any hope for the Great American Newspaper? Sure—for the lucky ones.

The LA Times, having suffered under years of inept and indifferent management, is a long, long way from its glory days. It was once a point of pride for the paper to compete with the New York Times; now it's not even capable of winning the news war in its own city. Jeremy Peters today runs down the paper's many troubles—the overarching one being that while the paper's lost half its circulation in the past decade, it's also lost at least half of its prestige. Under Tribune management, there's been virtually no low to which the LAT wouldn't stoop in desperate pursuit of a buck. Now, the staff's been cannibalized and the paper's just not that good. And readers know it.

The Washington Post has an easier job than the LAT. They only really ever needed to win one beat (politics), and metro coverage of DC is a far more modest proposition than metro coverage of LA County. But upstart operations like Politico have challenged the WaPo's insider political beat supremacy; "hyperlocal" online news operations are moving into metro coverage on the cheap; and in a world of across-the-board budget cuts that all newspapers have suffered in the past five years or so, it's difficult for the WaPo to invest enough to fight off an entire internet's worth of competitors nipping at its heels. The paper's own ombudsman said yesterday that thanks to cost-cutting, "it has become riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes and intolerable 'small' factual errors that erode credibility. Local news coverage, once robust, has withered." The paper's categorically awful op-ed section and cringeworthy punditry doesn't help. Even Warren Buffett, longtime Washington Post Co. investor and a constant living totem that the company could point to to prove its own viability, is stepping down from the board.

And the New York Times? Despite a shaky couple of years financially and a war of choice from Rupert Murdoch, it's still the best newspaper in America. But it's not going to be the most democratic for much longer. Its year-in-the-making paywall is coming next month. Here's what the plan looks like, according to a report in the WSJ today: you can read a certain number of pages per month free, and then the paywall kicks in. Frequent readers can choose either a "digital bundle" of internet access and the NYT iPad app, for about $20 a month, or online access alone for about half that.

While the anti-iPad incentive structure there is a bit wacky, I have little doubt that the NYT will find a lot of paying customers. Their content is worth it. So is the Wall Street Journal's content, and they've had a successful online paywall for years. But consider the new newspaper landscape: America's two best papers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, sit behind paywalls. Once-great papers like the Washington Post and the LA Times—already eroded by economics and niche online competitors—find that they simply aren't good enough to make a paywall work; it would drive away too many readers to readily available free competitors. (See Newsday, for example.) Second-tier papers will continue to cut costs and get worse. First-tier papers will become must-reads for the economically advantaged people who can afford to pay for them. The cost of breaking into that first tier will be very, very high—prohibitive, in fact, for most current newspaper companies that aren't already there.

Access to the best and most timely information, in the form of the best newspapers, is a significant advantage in an information economy. Twenty years from now, we'll look back on the era of universal free online access to newspaper content as a historical aberration, and a dumb one at that.

Information isn't free. It's expensive. Especially if you can't afford it.