How can we honestly ask people to pay for news?

All this talk about setting up an iTunes for news and getting people to pay for news is rather silly.

Steve Yelvington nails it on Twitter:

Repeat something I said years ago: How can you expect somebody to pay for content if they won’t read it regularly when it’s free?

There isn’t one news source that I am beholden to. I check many sources each day and could easily live without any of them. I’m not that regular of a reader of anything, and it’s all free.

Google Reader, Twitter, Delicious, Publish2, Facebook, etc are my main news sources. I follow the links from trusted sources.

Also, it’s impossible to charge for commoditzed content. Just look at how many news sources reported on Steve Jobs taking a leave of absence today. Go ahead and be that one news outlet that charges for something that people can get elsewhere.

And I bet advertisers notice too how the same news is reported and dissected ad nauseam by seemingly infinite news outlets. That certainly doesn’t create value for advertisers. More likely, it creates a glut of virtually identical content, allowing advertisers to offer rock bottom rates.

Journalism isn’t as unique as journalists want to believe it is. Unique niche content that creates value for both users and advertisers is our best path forward.

  • Does this example work as a precursor?
    People used to get their tv programming for free. They would need the actual television set, but after they stuck up their rabbit ears, they got the Big Three for nothing. Then came cable and the consciousness of both the audience and the television industry shifted from a free, over the wave system to that of a combined system of pay for content (a la HBO) and not (NBC, ABC, etc).

    I think people will pay for content if they believe that the content is premium and no one else can get it. There was this kid whose parents got cable in the early 80s and my friends and I would go over to hang out JUST to watch cable…we thought we were cool b/c no one had cable, yet. Will this play out similarly on the Web? I don’t know.

    I do think that it will be very hard to get people to pay for crappy content and just as difficult to get people to pay for premium content when they’re used to getting it for free. Just some thoughts…

  • I want to take a slightly different tack. People will willingly pay for convenience. It’s not the content that has value. It’s when and where a user wants to access that content. People are willing to pay for cable because it is convenient to channel surf 100 channels than be forced to choose from 3 or 5 channels. They will pay for iTunes because it’s easier than going to Blockbuster, cheaper than buying the whole CD.

    The notion that content can be locked up and a fee paid for access is going away. The task now is to make available that content in the most convenient way. People will pay $300 for an iPhone because it’s convenient.

    In a Google-Mart economy, the scarce resource is time and focus. No one has enough. Show me a way that I can save time and increase focus, price it reasonably – usually much less than the present businesses think they should get, and people will buy it willingly.

  • Ohio HOya

    There are many sites with content behind passwords that one needs to pay for. The WSJ is an excellent example, but there are other niche markets as well. You do make a point that a lot of information functions similar to a commodity and if I can’t locate information one place then I will go somewhere else as you stated. Outlets need to do something to make themselves standout and draw individuals in.

    Maybe the NYT, WaPo, & LAT go to a model where they provide newswires to the general public, but retain their investigative or in-depth reports behind a password protected site with a nominal fee. Maybe this is something McClatchy or the NY Times company should do across all its outlets at the same time. Make it a year long subscription that auto-renews. Most of these sites already force you to register to see most of the articles. I think this method might work, but you are always going to run into rouge sites that repost content…

  • The problem with the blah content for free and the good stuff for money doesn’t scale. Sure you can make some money from your fans, but that’s a niche market. I think it describes pretty much what the NYT tried back in the day. There is a model in here someplace, but not about the news.

    Suppose for example you pay a subscription to get access to any of their reporters or columnists. I would some very reasonable amount to be part of service in which I have a real expectation that T. Friedman might respond to a question or a thought.

    But still not enough. The thing about niche markets is that unless you have alot of them, you can’t make enough money.

    My story is the primary ad revenue is from Print Ads. Once the papers make it as easy to place a Print ad as it is to do an adword, a whole new market for newspaper advertising opens up. Since it is all about local advertising, it’s a protected niche.

    Thoughts? Reactions?

  • pat


    You might be onto something there. What if the NY Times charged money for access to columnists like Friedman? He would make an effort to respond to this select groups comments and questions, would appear for weekly chats and do other content for them.

    Sure, this might only appeal to five percent of his readers, but that doesn’t mean he would stop making content for the other 95 percent. I think it is unreasonable to try to charge the masses for news, but charging niches is not a bad idea. All the NY Times would have to do then is about break even on the content for the masses and run up big margins on the niches.

  • @ Pat-

    I think it would work. Whether anyone can break through the buzz and the not-invented-here culture at the NYT is something all together different. But maybe some of the great and in deep trouble local papers could pick this up. Friedman is a big deal among a small , but very vocal audience. But in any local situation there are well respected people. Some for free, some for money.

    A school principal or teacher for free. The education expert at the local college. Read for free. Pay for access. Pay for a copy of his latest essays on the issue. Meanwhile, the paper gets to locate the real fans, as indicated by the fact they would pay for access. Likely those fans would pay for lots of other stuff. Dinner with the star? Lecture?

  • pat


    I think the idea of paying for access may be a good way to exploit some of the non-commodities that news organizations have. News itself is usually a commodity. The people who report it are not. The people reporters have access to are not.

    I think we have to find ways to harness our non-commodities. First, we have to figure out what is a commodity and what isn’t/

  • I just been through years of this discussion in the Print business. It’s still raging in some quarters but pretty much the game is up on Print – the object – as a commodity. The verdict is that the object is. The companies that embraced the idea early are doing well. The companies that are still denying it, not so much.

    The skill and experience to craft the words and pictures is not a commodity. Everything else is.

    The underlying issue is actually a valuable commodity vs cheap commodity. A valuable web based commodity for a newspaper might be access to intelligence and power. It’s what drives political campaign contributions. I would pay for access to my favorite columnist, if and only if, I had the reasonable expectation that I would be heard and could receive a considered response.

    While talk is cheap, listening and responding to me or people like me can be valuable.. So I would pay for it, as long as the price was appropriate. That’s why blog commenting is so much fun. Smart people. Considered discussions.

    Access to a considered discussion between really smart people is worth some money. It would be like contributing money to get into a fund raising party. But with Tivo, Youtube, I can watch considered discussions for free. Once the link is made between the PC and the TV, the price point is going to go to zero. On the other hand, a transcript might be worth paying for, as long as it was priced correctly.

    Other than that, I think the most predictable way to generate revenue is to sell stuff to fans. If you want the longer story, it’s at my blog at: