Worth paying for

by Jason Preston on January 2, 2009

I think one of the most important ideas that needs to spread through the internet at large is that some things are worth paying for. That’s how businesses are formed.

In past, newspapers have been worth paying for largely because the news was hard to get for free. The delivery service—the transmission of news—was worth paying for.

As everyone and their three-legged-dog now knows, the internet makes it close to impossible to build a business that charges for delivery of information. So if delivering information is no longer a service worth paying for, what is?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the reason I’m writing this post is because of a particular sentence in a resolutions for journalists post on everyday journalism:

The first step to reversing journalism’s tarnished image is to have the guts to dig for information the public can’t easily find themselves, and be an advocate of unbiased, straightforward truth.

That sounds like to key to a good news business plan to me: dig for information the public can’t easily find themselves. That’s your value right there.

I’ve argued for some time on this blog that newspapers need to find ways to continue charging money for their services. It’s just a matter of redefining that service.

I think that metered content is a great halfway-step idea that lets a newspaper charge people without stifling the conversation or gating access to a runaway popular story.

Start running your newspaper like it’s a product that’s worth paying for, and you’ll earn the privilege to charge for your service again.

{ 6 comments }

1 Paul Balcerak 01.02.09 at 12:13 pm

I was thinking the other day — and I may have mentioned this somewhere before — that in order to charge for news on the ‘Net (and be successful) you’d have to convince every other news source to do it as well — kind of like what iTunes and Rhapsody did in the mp3 download biz after Metallica sunk Napster.

Metered content on “bonus” material is another way to pull in a few bucks (it seems like ESPN makes a killing doing this) but I’m not convinced that enough people value investigative reporting (I assume that’s what you’re talking about) for it to “save” the business.

2 Jason Preston 01.02.09 at 12:26 pm

Paul – Investigative reporting is certainly a component of that, although it’s also access, not just time.

More basically, my point is that the news business used to be based on charging for something that was difficult to do: distributing information. Now everyone can distribute information for free, so fewer people are willing to pay for it, which means it’s time to find something new to charge for.

As for everyone doing it simultaneously, I’ve heard that one before, but I don’t buy it. In this particular case, a few papers just need to prove the market, and others will follow. I think the audience is less fickle than most people assume – there’s still such a thing as a loyal following.

3 Suzanne 01.02.09 at 12:28 pm

Glad to see my post inspired you!

I agree with the fact that people are willing to pay for quality content. This is something we’re banking on at my internship, The Public Press. But it better be the best content you can’t find anywhere else. Consumer Reports does this well, and big databases such as Lexis-Nexis are worth every penny.

I think I read this in JTM’s Next Newsroom plan, and I wholeheartedly agree with it: If news outlets had robust searchable databases, such as local schools information, crime maps, an easy-to-use public records database or something else like that, I can imagine people willing to pay for it. But to create that kind of content, you will have to be well-staffed, and the price you charge will have to offset the staffing.

It’s a tougher sell when you’re talking about hard-hitting news stories, though. Those are the kind that should be free and accessible just on principle alone. I think the upsell potential lies in something that’s searchable, useful, easy to use and THOROUGH as hell.

-Suzanne

PS: I’ve changed the name of the blog from “everyday journalism” to just my name, in part for SEO and all that “personal branding” rubbish, and in part to reflect that I’m writing about a lot more than just yer average everyday journalism. Just FYI.

4 Paul Balcerak 01.02.09 at 12:59 pm

Jason – The access argument is a good one and I agree you and Suzanne that people would be willing to pay for it (again, I argue ESPN does it all the time).

However, I also agree with Suzanne that “hard-hitting news stories … are the kind that should be free and accessible just on principle alone” and a lot of journalists probably feel the same way.

What about charging for archives? I know the Yakima Herald-Republic used to (I know because I had to pay to view my own ******* stories back when I was applying for jobs), though it looks like they’ve ceased that at the moment (perhaps killing my question). I’d pay $0.99 to be able to get an text and pdf version of the M’s 1995 Divisional Series win ($2.95 for just text is a little steep, though).

5 Jason Preston 01.02.09 at 1:17 pm

Paul & Suzanne – I think you’ve both misunderstood my stance on metered content: metered content is better than straight paid content for precisely that reason – that it allows everyone free access to the investigative journalism, but still provides a mechanism for a newspaper to charge for their work.

Archives is just straight math, and it should be decided paper by paper – if you make more money filling the ad inventory and milking the long tail, then keep ’em free. If, instead, you make more money by charging people for access, then charge people for access. ’nuff said.

Also, I wholeheartedly agree with the development of true interactive/searchable/useful content on newspaper web sites. I think that’s an essential part of a paid offering.

What should maybe happen is that the existing functionality of newspaper sites (or something close to it) will remain free, and all the added functionality of a real web-based news resource will come with a fee attached…

6 Paul Balcerak 01.02.09 at 2:05 pm

Jason – This is probably where you and I fundamentally disagree because I just don’t see people paying for straight news content/analysis/whatever (“all the added functionality of a real web-based news resource“) when they can go to another site and get something similar for free. I don’t see people being that loyal to any particular brand.

Instead, I think paid or metered content would be best applied to “fun” stuff — the Boston Globe’s Big Picture Blog being a perfect example. Right now it’s all free, but if there were a way to charge for it (difficult because the photos are culled from all over) who wouldn’t pay a nominal fee (like Flickr pro’s $25/year)?

This is entirely subjective, but apply that argument to whatever you like to consume and it stands.

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