Please pay us for our news — please?

by Mathew on February 5, 2009 · 6 comments

As the financial pressures on newspapers continue to increase, the chorus of voices calling out for a new kind of payment scheme grow louder and louder. Some, like New York Times writer David Carr, have argued that newspapers should be able to concoct some form of “iTunes for news” that would allow them to pool their resources and charge users for their content (provided they get a waiver from the anti-trust authorities, of course). Others — including Carr’s boss Bill Keller, in a recent interview — have mused aloud about whether they couldn’t just re-erect the old pay wall and convince some people to pay for the news that way.

The latest voices to add themselves to this chorus are Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News and veteran journalist and author Walter Isaacson, writing in Time magazine. Bykofsky wrote a piece that managed to hit pretty much every highlight (or lowlight) of the crotchety old newspaperman genre: bloggers can’t replace journalists, every other outlet copies the news from newspapers, and if it wasn’t for the darn Internet we would all be a lot better off. Isaacson is less crotchety, but still thinks that advertising isn’t a suitable business model (even though it has been the driving force behind the newspaper business for half a century or so) He and Bykofsky both think maybe micro-payments are the way to go (and the latter recommends a few lawsuits aimed at Google, just for good measure).

As Mark Potts at Recovering Journalist points out (along with a few others), this entire argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry. Newspapers have *never* been paid directly by readers for the news. When readers pay for a paper at the box or at the store or by subscription, they are paying for a small fraction of the content in the newspaper — maybe the first half a dozen pages or so, for a large metropolitan daily. Everything else is paid for by advertising. What newspapers have been in the business of doing is aggregating attention and influence, which they then transfer to advertisers in return for cash and other items of value.

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab)

  • http://blog.nextblitz.com gzino

    The issue is that the web killed the newspaper advertising monopoly and then killed it again. First by exploding total inventory and taking eyeballs. Then by showing advertisers metrics like clicks per views. Not that it is entirely apples to apples, but the advertisers realized they were paying the equivalent of $50 CPM in the local rag, compared that to online ad performance in order to estimate their ROI and slashed the budget after it has already been cut to reflect their revenue woes.

    So, yes, absolutely the newspapers need a new business model, and, no, nobody knows what it is yet.

  • Robin Gambhir

    Wow. No wonder the newspapers/media people think they're screwed; it would seem all they have to offer are old ideas and hand wringing. Every argument seems to be about how much or whether to charge for the content, but is that even the question at all?

    Why not charge people for the experience of how they consume your content? I read the New York Times every day on my iPhone beause they have an iPhone app. I prefer to read it using the app because it downloads the content and I can read it on the subway when I have no signal. Browsing even the NYT mobile site is not a great experience. So I would be willing to pay some small subscription charge a year to use that app to consume the NYT. In the same way I would way those small dollars for a Web app. I paid $25 to Remember the Milk, so the NYT is worth that to me at least, especially if they gave me a premium version of their reader that was faster, cached more etc. Maybe it would even read the articles to me.

    Perhaps the most expensive means of consuming the content should be the printed copy that gets delivered to your door. A newspaper: the ultimate aggregator, with a take anywhere interface, delivered right to your door every day. That is (or should be) regarded as a premium product. Not something you give away as some newspaper (National Post comes to mind), do now. The lowest end should be the company's site that should be full of ads so that the experience of consuming the content that way is not anywhere near as good as the paid methods.

    Finally, what does it say when a Canadian prefers to get news from the New York Times rather than the Globe & Mail because the Globe doesn't have an iPhone app? I don't think I'm alone in thinking that those who complain the most are also the ones least willing to rethink the problem.

    Robin Gambhir,
    Toronto, Canada.

    PS: I'm looking forward to the Globe's iPhone app.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Those are some great ideas, Robin. Thanks for the comment.

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    Good topic, thanks for sharing, I really it the ideas we are talking!

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