Should Newspapers Charge For Content

Mar 2, 2009 by

In a word – yes.

When I was a publisher back in the 90s, I charged for content. I thought it was asinine to give our content away for free. I still do. And we had a great web site, thanks to the excellent folks at Morris Digital Works who built it. We even won the best designed web site for newspapers under 10,000 circulation from the Newspaper Association of America. So I think I can speak to this subject with some understanding.

Let’s face it, this is one of the most controversial subjects facing what’s left of the newspaper industry. Either the “web” should be free (it’s not, despite what you think, but that’s another post) or newspapers should charge for their content. There’s really no middle ground.

Hearst Corp. and Newsday recently announced they will start to charge for some content, but exactly how and what remains to be determined. Part of the problem I see is newspaper companies are looking/grasping for any revenue, and the “paid content” idea is an attempt to get something, anything. It’s a little late.

There’s a flurry of ideas out there, from “micropayments” to monthly subscriptions to donations. I’m not crazy about any of them really.

I understand all the arguments for free content – I lived it and debated it for years. There’s no sense rehashing all that here.

In my gut, I just don’t agree with giving away everything for free, especially when I was spending vast sums to gather/distribute it.  And that was/is part of the problem. I can understand “teasing” content on the web to drive readers to the print product – in fact I agree with that concept completely. But I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer as to why putting everything on the web will drive people to the print product.

I have yet to talk to anyone (who’s not in the newspaper or “web” business) who doesn’t agree. Every response, in a nutshell, is “why should I pay for the paper when I can read it online for free?”

I’d encourage you to read Alan Mutter’s post today – “Why Media Must Charge For Content” on this very subject.

Here’s an excerpt: When the Internet emerged, most publishers committed the Original Sin of thoughtlessly giving away their content for free in the hopes of attracting millions of page views where they could sell the sort of high-priced ads that had built the value of their print franchises. This monumental strategic blunder resulted in three major unintended, and unfortunate, consequences:

So what should newspaper do?

Well, I still like my original idea best, and yes, partly because it was my idea. And to be totally truthful, the “web” experts thought I was the Antichrist or something for charging.

Anyway, here’s what I did.

1. If you were a subscriber to the print product, we gave you access to the web for free. It was our way of saying “thank you loyal reader for buying our product. We’d like to give you something extra.”

2. Our newspaper was different than most in that about one-third of our readers were single copy. And they were religious about buying it every day. And I got lots of calls from these readers asking why they couldn’t get web access. I agreed with them. So we put a daily password in the paper to accommodate those people. Again, thanks for buying our product, here you go.

3. We charged a minimal amount for non-subscribers to read the paper online – as I recall it was $7 a month or $60 ($5 a month) for an annual subscription. It wasn’t much, probably half a print subscription, but that wasn’t the point. I just placed value in what we did and believed our product was worth something. And you know what, we actually made a nice little chunk of change from charging non-subscribers.

From a pure business standpoint, newspapers do one thing – they “sell” information. And that information comes in two basic forms: “news” and “advertising.”

Bottom line, people buy newspapers to find out what’s going on and to be informed – whether that’s wondering if the city council raised their property taxes to who won the football game to finding out if their favorite clothing store is having a sale or to find a job.

If you quit “selling” your product, you simply aren’t going to make any money.

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