JULY 17, 2009 5:19PM

Pay for news? It's just not worth it

Rate: 7 Flag
By King Kaufman: Recovering Journalist Mark Potts boils down the paid content issue pretty succinctly in a reaction to Financial Times editor Lionel Barber's recent bloviation that "almost all news organizations will be charging for content" within a year.

"The current print formula of raising newsstand and subscription prices while reducing the quality of the product is having a quite predictable effect on circulation," he writes. "Readers can tell the difference, and they're walking away. So now you want to put a price on a so-so online product that heretofore has been free and can largely be duplicated elsewhere? Good luck with that."

Potts talks about an idea that often gets kind of ignored in the conversation about how news organizations are going to get people to pay for their product: "To charge readers for access," he writes, "you've got to provide them with value for their money."

Stop the presses!


This kid had something of value to sell. But he's not looking so lively these days. Photo: Flickr / CC BY 2.0

There's nothing magical about this whole Internet business. It has some unique characteristics just like any other industry, but the fundamental laws apply: If you want people to pay for something, you've got to give them a good product at a price they're willing to pay.

I feel like I say this every five minutes in Future of Journalism nerdland, but: Look at iTunes. The music business had convinced itself that because of the Internet and mp3's and file sharing nobody would ever pay for music again, unless the industry got the laws changed and sued all its customers to smithereens.

Then iTunes came along. It wasn't a brilliant technical innovation. It was just a good product at a reasonable price. Sure, the amoral, thieving, pirating music public said, we'll pay 99 cents for a song.

With iTunes, finding the song you wanted and downloading it became quick and easy, and you knew the quality would be good. The marginal difference between that and doing the same thing in the wild world of unauthorized file sharing was worth 99 cents to a whole lot of people.

The sad fact about "almost all news organizations" is that they don't provide the same kind of value. Back to Potts:

"But wait, you say. Newspapers are still full of great reporters and storytellers and photographers who can provide coverage of city hall and cops and local events and all sorts of important issues like nobody else. Yeah, they are (well, maybe not after all the buyouts and layoffs). But is that work sufficiently unique and valuable that significant numbers of people will pay for it? Probably not. Sorry. It's just not enough."

That is, for the vast, crashing majority of people, the marginal difference between the very best general news coverage and totally mediocre coverage isn't worth a dime. They'll pay for specialized or niche information because there's so much less of it. The news? There's a lot.

In fact, there's too much. That's why people look to aggregators, such as Google News, which the journalism industry is busy attacking because it thinks Google's making money by selling advertising against the valuable, unpaid-for work of journalists.

What's really happening: Google is doing the valuable work, providing something worthwhile by aggregating and making some sense out of the massive flow of news and information.

The news consumer wants to know what President Obama said, what happened in the stock market, who won the Twins game. If she can get that information in prose that walks in beauty like the night, she'll take it. But if not, there are plenty of us hacks out here to serve it up like mashed potatoes. And there's Google News to point the consumer to it.

Every news business executive who huffs and puffs about how the people are just going to have to buckle down and pay for content, who marches up Capitol Hill to try to get subsidies or laws enacted to save this industry so vital to our democracy, who warns the citizenry that without a watchdog fourth estate corruption will run wild, is an executive whose time would be better spent trying to figure out how to give people value for their money.

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Yeah, but seriously King, what do you think the Bills' chances are this year?
You mean that there is content with value on this thing? Now I'm sure you haven't been reading my posts. Value huh? I'll have to try that.
I'm for new and unusual takes on what's going on. There'll be some hit and miss going on but what I don't need is someone to repeat the news to me. Not that I want to populate the world with mindless talking heads (god forbid) but I'm willing to look at quality analysis. Tell me what you THINK about what's going on or what you think other people will think or how you think we SHOULD think about it all, then maybe I'll pay (and for chrissakes, put some thought, some creativity, some research and a dash of wit behind it - and use spellcheck).
How many subscribers does the mothership Salon have? I was an unpaid reader there for years, using day passes to read content regularly. Through that exposure, I bought a subscription and have now been a premium member for several years now. Salon has content that I find value in, and I have NO issues paying the price they ask for it ... given what I get in many other places, Salon often feels like a steal.

I think Salon.com is an excellent example of what a "new media magazine" might look like, in terms of content and in terms of economics. While I'm sure they aren't raking in the millions, Salon clearly has content that people are willing to pay for, and they clearly have the resources to continue publishing after more than a decade. If we want a good example of how to make new media work, we really need look no farther than our own mothership, Salon.com.
I can understand paying for access to the local newspaper, but that's really not how people use the web. We hear about different stories in papers all around the country. We surf around and read all sorts of different things from many papers, and the papers are different each day. In a pay-to-read model how would that work? We're all supposed to subscribe to 200 newspapers?
part of the problem is, the news is not useful- it's just gossip which has heretofore been used to suck eyes over to ads. this process is likely to continue, and i can envision local shopping throwaways emailing a subscriber list with news from state and national media.

some news is useful, specialist information such as market reports. rich people are interested and will pay.
Rich people are interested and will pay... for SAILBOATS!
Since 2005, I have been paying for my comics, puzzles, etc and getting the news online for free. The NY, LA and London Times, The Guardian, AP.org, UPI.com, WN.com, BBC.com, etc, they're all great for getting free news. My local papers are online as well (SJ Mercury/SF Chronicle). What paying for news gives you is investigative news. It gives the reporter time to do his research. It gives the papers their Pulitzers. I would have no problem paying for the news online if it was for a decent price. The SJ Mercury News has 235,790 daily subscribers at $20/month, that's $4,715,800 monthly, (this doesn't include newstands, etc.). If they delivered equal content online for half that, I'm sure there'd be takers. I don't mind online papers - better for the environment.
So much of what passes as "news" today is just repackaged, regurgitated news - sometimes, the lightest version of it, with a side of heavy opinion.... I don't know where the lines stop blurring going forward, and it's often hard to make that distinction now. But I do know this:

* I expect to pay for high-quality news in the not-to-distant future. I expect other people will not - and this could potentially put America at a terrible disadvantage. The highest ideals of democracy are not supported by an uninformed public.

* People who gain access to news will keep repackaging it for the non-paying masses (and, the medium being the message, that message will likely be diluted, pulled apart, repackaged as something else, and not as meaningful or useful, even scary - like FrankenNews).

* We're in for one hell of a bumpy ride. Democracy unleashed to achieve even greater heights via warp-speed accelerated engagement of an enlightened citizenry, or democracy run amok, creating a journalistic wasteland of chaotic voices - all of them competing, only a few heard above the din.

I don't think we're in a position to see the solution - as we're still, in my opinion, on the very outskirts of this massive storm, with no eye in sight. It's exhilarating and exhausting keeping watch.
I recently wrote a post comparing taday's blogging platforms to the development of Gutenburg's printing press. Where Gutenburg allowed the ideas of the elite into the hands of the masses, blogging democratizes both sides of that equation, giving both the means of publishing, AND the ideas over to the masses. The comments sections of these posts turn them into collaborative documents that grow and develop over time with many authors. Thats a whole new form of expression for humans that has never existed for us before, and that is remarkable.

When Gutenberg invented his press, the ONLY ideas people had for it, at first, were printing religious screeds, and political diatribes, to distribute among the people. It was nearly a century later that the first newspapers and magazines started emerging to fully monetize the new invention, and fully democratize the information it conveyed.

Blogging and the new information streams on the internet will also find their natural means of monetization, eventually, and it will not look like magazines or newspapers of today ... it will look like something completely new and different, just like magazines and newspapers were new and different from anything else when they were invented. We have no idea what it will really look like when it emerges, but rest assured it will.

We are at the cusp of the newest means of expression, and we have the chance to shape how that future will unfold. We, the people of Open Salon, and other bloggers around the web are the people who will build whatever develops from this form.

Newspapers and Magazines are as obsolete today as scriptoriums and scribes were in the days following Gutenberg's press. They are forms that serviced an old model of information dissemination, and while we will use that as a basis for our new forms, those new forms will be completely different, geared towards the means of dissemination. We are the people who are building those new forms, right here, right now, and living documents like this one, where people from all over the globe can contribute to an idea that has a life of its own, are one of the forms the future will take.

Keep up the discussion. Newspapers and magazines are Gutenberg era technology, and we've moved passed that now into a new era, with new tools at our disposal. It is discussions like this one that will start to model how we will do things in the future. We are still in the "religious screed and political diatribe" stage of our new technology, but we are starting to work out what the "newspaper and magazine" phase of this invention will look like. But rest assured that the old forms are just that ... old and obsolete. Just as the press demanded new forms of dissemination, so does this new future we are all walking into today. Let's keep working on it, and make sure we get it right.

Thats the post I discussed in my previous comment.