Thoughts on charging for news (and succeeding)

A group of newspaper execs met this week to discuss the best ways to collude; I mean “support and preserve the traditions of newsgathering that will serve the American public.”

Rather than comment on these legally-challenged meetings, I’m here to offer some suggestions for charging for news. Let’s assume that newspaper leaders have committed to charging for news. Here are my suggestions for what to do and what to avoid:

  1. You can’t charge for something that has been free for years without drastically improving it — The idea of putting existing journalism content that has been free for years behind a pay wall is laughable at best. More realistically, it’s suicidal. People simply will not find value in it. After all, it was free for years. What’s changed now? Your balance sheets? People don’t care about that. Unless you are suddenly going to hire all those reporters that you laid off back, don’t even dream about charging for existing content. In fact, most newspapers offer an inferior product today than they did five years ago.
  2. People won’t pay for the police blotter – Just because you spend time “reporting” on a subject, doesn’t mean people will pay for it. Consider carefully what you want to charge for and not charge for. I’m not saying to give up the police blotter, I’m just saying to not even dream about charging for it.
  3. It’s much easier to charge for a new product or feature that was never freely available — It’s much easier to convince someone of the value of a product or feature that was never available before. It’s new. It can be “premium.” If the feature rocks and adds value to people’s lives, it might just work. This is where news orgs need to concentrate their efforts on. “What can be create new that people will find valuable?” That’s what newspaper execs should have really been discussing.
  4. Even if a news org develops products & content worth paying for, it still needs plenty of good, free content – A uniform pay wall with all content behind it is suicide. How will a news org find new users? It won’t. Any news org hoping to survive and thrive long term needs a strategy that caters to current users while also cultivating new users. Even though most people coming from search engines, Twitter, aggregators, etc aren’t loyal users, they all offer the ability to convert random users into loyal users. Even pay wall-hero The Wall Street Journal has a mix of free and premium content. Same with ESPN.com. There must be a free-premium model at work. And the free content should satisfy 90 percent of users.
  5. Premium products for premium users — You want to develop premium products for premium users. Premium users are dedicated and loyal. They check a Web site several times a day, not a month. Not all users are created equal. Steve Yelvington points out that news orgs offer a tale of two audiences — one casual, one dedicated. We want free products for the casual, while also developing premium features, products, access and even user interfaces for the dedicated.
  6. A pay wall won’t protect print — People who left aren’t coming back to print. This is the worst possible reason for a pay wall, and yet some news orgs are hoping that a pay wall will save print. MediaNews president Jody Lodovic said, ”The whole idea is to stop the erosion from print to online and encourage people to become print subscribers.” Many people simply don’t want to be print subscribers anymore, especially to a daily newspaper. Everyday that goes by another person from a previous generation dies, while several more who will live their whole lives with the Internet are born. I’m 24; I’ve spent most of my life with the Internet. I’m not going back.
  7. Think outside the box — I’m not a fan of charging for content. Most newspapers have never done this. We charged for a product — a printed newspaper. People also paid for delivery of said product. I already pay for Internet access and a computer (printing and distribution in the digital world). I’m not also paying for basic content. Instead, newspapers should concentrate on charging for what they always have — platforms and products. That’s really what a newspaper is. Ideas like the Times Reader are a step in the right direction (premium user interfaces and experiences for premium users). Mobile apps present another avenue to charge with. Why not charge for access and community? That’s one thing newspapers should do well.

Getting people to pay for a product isn’t rocket science. It usually starts with understanding what people are willing to pay for.

    • Ken Spencer

      But I have ALWAYS paid for my news – I have been a newspaper and magazine subscriber for 42 years. Existing journalism hasn’t been free. And I am not talking about the trash that is on the network TeeVee chanels. That, of course is not news. I am glad to pay for newspaper and magazine content – that’s only fair, right? This business of news being free only started in recent history with the web. Gee, I wonder how that is working out for newspapers? I am favoring micropayments – that seems like a really fair way to pay for the valuable work that is being done at major newspapers around the country..

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    • http://kboreilly.com Kevin B. O’Reilly

      I live in Chicago. The Tribune charges $250 a year for a subscription. The Sun-Times is $180, I believe. So, despite the modest conveniences of having a print subscription, I just read them free in Google Reader. Would I subscribe if I couldn’t get the same stuff (and more) free online? Well, at least there would be *some* consideration of it, whereas now you’ve got to be a real sucker — or really attached to print — to even make the deal close to worthwhile. I’d be willing to subscribe to an online-only version at a reduced cost, anyhow. I’m not sure how I’d react, but my reaction now is more amazement that I get the papers for free and I doubt I’d be upset if they decided to start charging.

    • jeremy mott

      1. No one will buy bottled water if tap water is free.
      2. No one will subscribe to cable TV if over-the-air TV is free.
      3. No one will subscribe to satellite radio if local radio is free.
      4. No one will buy a book if the same book at the library is free.
      5. No one will buy a ticket to a sports event if they can watch it on TV free.
      6. No one will go to the movies if they can see the same film on TV free.
      7. No one will pay private school tuition if public school is free.
      8. No one will use a taxi if they can walk somewhere free.
      9. No one will pay for pornography online if it’s available online for free.
      10. No one will pay for news if it was once available free.

    • http://www.patthorntonfiles.com pat

      @Jeremy,

      Many of the things you list are not comparable to online and print news. Attending a sporting event is a different experience than watching it on TV.

      Cable TV is a premium product over network TV. It’s not like Cable TV viewers are paying to watch the same channels and shows.

      Bottled water’s success is largely due to marketing and convenience.

      You can’t see the same movies for free on TV that you can in theaters. It takes years for them to appear on TV and when they do they are edited.

      Etc, etc, etc. These aren’t good parallels.

    • http://www.patthorntonfiles.com pat

      @Ken,

      You’ve paid for printing and distribution, but you’ve probably never paid for the actual journalism. Most print publications have been sold at a loss for years. Newspapers and magazines are ad supported businesses, and that’s the same model that news orgs have tried on the Web.

      The real problem is that advertisers are stuck in their old ways and still prefer print and TV ads to online ads, despite online ads delivery much better analytics. Plus, online ads are much easier to target.

    • Ken Spencer

      The metropolitan newspaper I worked for for 41 years was in fact making money hand over fist. It was privately owned, so we never knew how much, but the profits were rumored to be in the neighborhood of 25%. It was a cash cow. I actually subscribed to my own newspaper, because many days I was not in the office. So I paid to be able to read the news at home. I would pay to receive the news from other newspapers, when I read them. I don’t think that they should post their hard work for free. I am just saying that I think micro-payments are a better choice than yearly subscriptions that run over $200. I also don’t understand why people think music should be free. I have always paid for that as well.

    • http://www.riverscrap.com riverScrap.com

      I hate the idea of paying for online content as much as the next person, but at the end of the day it boils down to quality and viability. If a website’s advertising revenue isn’t sufficient to pay for high-quality investigative journalim, then it needs to find the money elsewhere. And besides, there will always be free alternatives to customers who don’t want to pay.

      A lot of people seem to have this romantic notion that everything on the internet should be free. They’re deluding themselves.