Investigative reporting = premium paid content?

By Steve Outing

Within reports of MediaNews Group about to institute a metered paywall at a couple of its newspapers by May is something disturbing. This excerpt is from a Bloomberg report about the newspaper chain’s plans:

“The newspapers, in York, Pennsylvania, and Chico, California, will give users free access to as many as 25 ‘premium’ articles monthly, after which they’ll have to pay an undetermined fee unless they subscribe to the print newspapers, said MediaNews President Joseph Lodovic. Premium content may include certain columns and investigative reporting, he said.

“’Most of our content will remain free,’ Lodovic said yesterday in an e-mail. ‘Once subscribed, the reader will have access to all premium across MediaNews Group.'”

I’ll buy the idea of calling investigative reporting “premium content”; it’s the most important journalism produced by most newspaper companies. But I take issue with adding “paid online” to that description.

So the Chico Enterprise-Record publishes a blockbuster investigative series uncovering, say, that private contractors are dumping waste into the lake that supplies most of the city’s water while city officials look the other way because they’ve been bribed. That’s a story you would want every person in Chico, and the state for that matter, to read.

But, no, you’ll have to pay for that if you’ve gone over your free web article quota.

I get it. MediaNews Group needs the money, would like more people to go back to paying for print editions, and is putting an online price tag on its best, “premium” content.

Really, I have no issue with news organizations charging for premium content or services, if they can figure out what they’ve got that’s not available elsewhere for free, a couple mouse-clicks away (which is a big if).

Unfortunately, lumping investigative journalism into the paywalled content pile is against the interests of the newspaper’s community.

How about if newspaper publishers decide to go with web paywalls (not my idea of a good strategy), they at least exempt investigative journalism in the interests of an informed citizenry?

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!

7 Responses to "Investigative reporting = premium paid content?"

  1. Jeff
    Jeff 7 years ago .Reply

    I come from a completely different school than most when it comes to pay walls vs. free. I have always thought there really is no reason to charge for online news content, when entrepreneurial advertising should do.
    The reason newspapers charge subscriptions, I always thought, was to help cover the cost of newsprint, printing and delivery. Since newprint, printing presses and carrier delivery do not exist in online news world, why bother to charge for content?
    The real problem is publishers and owners have failed to enterprise when it comes to advertising. They expect it to all come fat and easy like it has with newspapers in past decades — obscene profits that have not set well with advertisers.
    It will all shake out in the end, perhaps when gas prices soar once again, and newspapers start shutting down in droves. The successful online news operation might de-evolve into a tiny ad staff, a webmaster/editor, a few reporters who double as bloggers, photographers and videographers, a bookkeeper and that’s it for an online hyperlocal community site.
    Wait a minute, now that I think about it — is this really a problem?

  2. Dave Barnes
    Dave Barnes 7 years ago .Reply

    Since when are “the interests of the newspaper’s community” aligned with the interests of the newspaper’s owner?

    Since never.

    Newspapers are businesses designed to make money. Until recently, large amounts of money.

    Basic economic theory will tell you that this state cannot continue forever. A new rival will come into the market and undercut the monopolist’s profits.

  3. Mark Stanley
    Mark Stanley 7 years ago .Reply

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for this information about NewMedia Group. Interestingly enough, this was actually the topic of my Master’s paper, which I finished a few months ago.

    My hypothesis was that people would be more willing to pay for online content if it were original investigative reporting as opposed to, say, “opinion” journalism. I did a quantitative analysis by asking research participants to complete questionnaires in order to find out which type of journalism they would be more willing to pay for. My hypothesis was correct – people were more willing to pay for original investigative journalism.

    There are two key factors at play here, I believe – one you mentioned and one you didn’t. I believe people are willing to pay for original investigative content because it is original… you can’t find it “a couple mouse clicks away.” However, the other factor at play is that people intrinsically know – even if they don’t always act on this knowledge – that original investigative journalism IS the most valuable type of journalism. When revenues dry up, it is also usually the first type of reporting to go by the wayside. When people are faced with the decision: “Pay for quality journalism or lose quality journalism,” I think they will, ultimately choose the latter.

    Thanks,

    Mark

  4. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 7 years ago .Reply

    Hey, Steve:

    Well, after a brief but delightful convergence of our views on an issue a few weeks back, I have to say about this post: Have you lost your mind?

    Extending your reasoning, if a print newspaper publishes a investigative piece or series (as my newspaper does routinely), we should distribute for free each edition containing that material. In other words, the more “unique” and “valuable” our “content” becomes, but stronger the argument that it should be disseminated for free. That’s just crazy.

    Putting good investigative journalism into the public domain for free won’t increase its impact on the community, but it would put at real risk the ability of the newspaper to continue to do that sort of work. I can assure you, from three decades of personal experience, that investigative journalism is expensive, time-consuming, risky and highly likely to tick off important advertisers and a fair share of the very community we propose to serve. Putting it out there for free is, forgive me, enormously naive.

    Roger Plothow
    Editor and Publisher
    Post Register
    Idaho Falls, Idaho

  5. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 7 years ago .Reply

    Mark: What I would like to know: Is what people say they will do (“of course I’d pay to keep good investigative journalism alive”) what they will do in practice? For example, if a non-subscribing website visitor comes upon an investigative piece that’s behind a subscription paywall (and most newspaper sites that have paywalls seem to only offer the one option: subscribing), will he likely pay up to read this important piece of journalism? I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that in real life, most of those visitors will simply go away.

    If the option was offered to non-subscribers to instead pay a one-off fee to read the investigative piece, I’ll agree that more people would probably pay for that (let’s say, 50 cents) than would pay a one-off fee for other types of unique news content. But still you’d lose most of them to the paywall, and much of the public will be uninformed about an important issue.

    The technology is available to give non-subscribers multiple options for viewing an investigative piece in order to monetize it. So if your investigative epic is unique and therefore you can monetize it, why not give non-subscribers multiple ways to view it? Experiment. Possible options (choose one) for the non-subscribing web visitor:

    (First, offer up at least a couple or few paragraphs or promo to show the reader what he’ll get.)
    – Pay a set fee (50 cents)
    – Pay whatever amount you think it’s worth, to support investigative reporting (but no less than 50 cents); include some persuasive argument for giving more
    – Select from a list of increasing set prices
    – Pay nothing, but first watch a 30-second video or multimedia ad (the old Salon.com model), ideally well targeted
    – Pay nothing, but first take a marketing survey for an advertiser (This is a largely untapped revenue stream for news publishers; and ex-business partner of mine is now at an online survey company and starting to push this as a new service for publishers)
    – etc.

    If a newspaper site offered those options on a unique piece of investigative journalism, I expect that it would lose far fewer potential readers than the “subscribe or go to hell” approach. AND, you will have better served the public good.

    Very likely, this user-choice approach would bring in more revenue than letting people get turned away. I can’t confirm that with research, but my new initiative at the University of Colorado, the Digital Media Test Kitchen, has research like this on the queue. Publishers could wait for us to get that done, or simply experiment themselves.

    …Roger P.: I guess I’d like the best of both worlds: a wide audience for a newspaper’s most important journalism, and for it to be monetized sufficiently. I think the approach above has a good chance of that. (And research will help get toward an answer.) I think even a completely voluntary “pay for this investigative package so that we can continue doing it” model, with good use of persuasion techniques, would bring in more money than “subscribe or don’t read this.” But I can’t prove that yet.

    Perhaps your bean counters can make the case that you’re newspaper will make more money by demanding online subscriptions even if you get have a small readership. I’d argue that that makes you a businessman but not one who wants to serve his community. I guess I retain enough idealism to think that this is a possible scenario for a newspaper to survive and continue producing investigative and watchdog journalism to benefit its community. Call me crazy. 8^)

  6. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 7 years ago .Reply

    Steve:

    I’ll give you this — I think we both understand the importance of serious journalism. Clearly, we disagree about the best ways to make that possible in the Age of Entertainment. Call ME crazy, but I think it’s possible to be both an idealistic journalist (that’s my background) and a businessman who wants to serve his community.

    R.

  7. […] Investigative reporting = premium paid content? È, invece, la domanda che pone in questi giorni Steve Outing, una delle voci più autorevoli sull’innovazione nel giornalismo. In un post messo on line il 6 febbraio nel suo blog interviene su una questione molto dibattuta, quella della opportunità o meno di adottare paywall (abbonamenti a pagamento su determinati contenuti) sui siti dei giornali online come strategia per generare profitto dalle news (l’articolo parte dalla notizia che anche il grande gruppo MediaNews  ha annunciato questa politica editoriale). […]

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