I may advocate free web news, but let’s not be dogmatic

By Steve Outing

I’m on record as being opposed to charging for generic news content (including locally reported stories) on newspaper websites. I covered that in my last Editor & Publisher Online column, where I also outlined an alternative strategy to supplement weak online ad revenues. I also liked Steve Buttry’s “Seven reasons charging for content won’t work,” which nicely lays out the principal arguments against the paid-web-content strategy that seems to be shaping up. Evidence: last week’s quasi-secret newspaper CEOs’ meeting where paid online news was discussed; and MediaNews Group‘s web strategy shift as documented in a recent interview with CEO Dean Singleton in which he states:

“We’re going to move away from giving away our news content online for free — give a small amount of it away, and then air that out with reader-generated copy, with user-generated copy, with listings and other things online. We’re planning to make our online offerings much different than our print offerings.”

I’ll stick with my view that a MNG-type approach will fail, and Buttry’s seven reasons explain why. (An addition from me: In an era when people expect news to reach them in many ways, in many formats, and on many devices, it’s anachronistic to return to publishing news on one medium primarily and handicapping distribution on digital media forms, like the web, where different rules apply.)

But that’s not to say that I’m dogmatic on the idea of newspapers (or other types of news entities, for that matter) charging for web content. I think that there’s a line that needs to be set that’s optimal, and Singleton’s suggestion that most of his newspapers’ news content will go behind the must-pay-for wall is over the line and an impending disaster for his company.

(On the “positive” side, at least his newspapers will be the guinea pigs that prove whether charging for general local news on the web is possibly a workable strategy. Other newspaper publishers can watch and learn. I expect MediaNews Group will quickly learn it’s not working, and switch to another model, probably pioneered by someone else.)

The way for newspapers to charge for content is not rocket science. They must create new types of high-value, probably niche, content, communities, and/or services that are unique enough that people will be willing to pay for them. That’s tricky when your newspaper has laid off a big chunk of its editorial staff. But if it’s shedded stuff that others do better on the web — no more local movie critic, TV editor, books editor, etc. — then perhaps there can be room to rethink what a “newspaper” is about and start creating new content and services that break out of the newspaper box.

Newspapers have already lost many of the things they used to do to national web players that do a better job and can serve local audiences. The discussion now should be on what new things a newsroom full of journalists can do that are outside what we’ve known and valuable enough to get people to pull out their credit cards.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

4 Responses to "I may advocate free web news, but let’s not be dogmatic"

  1. Bill Mitchell
    Bill Mitchell 8 years ago .Reply

    Hey Steve,
    Your view of what kind of content — something special, beyond the commodity stuff — seems supported by PriceWaterHouseCoopers survey I wrote about last week: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=131&aid=164315

  2. Charles Batchelor
    Charles Batchelor 8 years ago .Reply

    (Bill Mitchell’s report is first rate.)

    Journalism needs revenue and asking readers to pay for it seems to make sense. But, I’ve seen the numbers and it does not. Let’s be clear: It’s not they will not pay, it’s not enough people will pay. Fact is, news–free or otherwise–isn’t dragging in the consumers as we need.

    But, news does add value. It adds “weight” and context to whatever is being discussed. News organizations can exploit that.

    Here’s an example at Boston.com that anyone with a respected web brand–and that’s any news organization–can use.
    Bostom has this “Moms” page, like many newspapers have, but that have sold sponsorship to a Children’s Medical Center.

    Recently, the Richmond Times-Dispatch removed the TV grid from the daily print paper. It’s now back–sponsored by a local TV station.

    Oh, you say, big deal, selling sponsorships. Think about it: How silly is a Mom’s board and a TV grid? The local shopper can do that. But, get paid for it like they are in Boston and in Richmond? No.

    Let’s use the news (and the news brand, as Boston does) to add value to many online and print products (silly and otherwise) and get paid for that added brand value.

    When a newspaper offers WuduPlz.com locally, after a parent sends a text message to their teen’s cellphone (on the sponsored service), the user not only sees a confirmation message and the sponsor’s message (again) but they also are offered local news headlines. That news adds value to to the user, sure, but it also add value to the sponsor, who is not only part of a handy household web service, but part of the news service brand as well. The local sponsor of WuduPlz is involved in the community, it obviously cares.

    Does a newspaper job fair has more value than a job fair sponsored by a government agency? Yes, because of the news brand is more trustworthy.

    Newspapers need to sell that added-value which news provides to the advertisers on within a network (in print and online) of useful, targeted products.

    And, sure, part of that network of useful, targeted products is the news. And add the TV schedule and parenting advice/services to the news. No problem.

    We can stop pretending that TV grids and parenting help isn’t as useful as news and stop asking news to drag in everyone we need to reach. But, in doing that, don’t stop using the news to add value. Without that added value news provides, the parenting advice biz and TV grids are not going to pay enough.

  3. […] why I think Steve Outing has it exactly right predicting that Singleton’s paywall plan won’t work. Newspapers, Outing […]

  4. […] ought to expand their definition of news to make money comes this post by Steve Outing, suggesting such a strategy: The way for newspapers to charge for content is not rocket science. They must create new types of […]

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