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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.