Cross post from Knight Digital Media Center Leadership 3.0 blog: Before they jump into charging for content, news organizations must bypass the “quality journalism” argument and answer these five questions instead.
I’ve hesitated to write about the notion of charging for online news content. I’m not a news business expert and I was not focusing on online years ago when some news organizations tried charging for content and could not pull it off. But with News Corp, The New York Times and The Boston Globe and other organizations considering charging for online content, I’ve been studying up and I want to add my voice to the chorus that’s saying “Don’t” or at least “Take a hard look before you leap.” (Special thanks to Steve Yelvington, Steve Outing, and Jeff Jarvis, whose blogging about paid content has helped me understand the issues.)
Last week, News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch stepped it up a few beats, announcing his news Web sites all soon would charge for access to content: “Quality journalism is not cheap and an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalizing its ability to produce good reporting.”
Indeed. While it is evident that many news organizations provide quality journalism, I don’t think that really addresses the question of whether news organizations can profit by charging for content. (I also realize that doesn’t seem fair.) But after all, if quality content was the key, many news organizations would have been charging for years (and some tried and failed more than a decade ago.)
Instead, here are five questions I think any local publisher or editor needs to ask before charging for content:
1. Will the content behind the pay wall be unique and essential to users? Finances aside, I think this is a critical question for news organizations. It also is a question that journalists are ill-equipped to answer on their own. Sure, we have plenty to say about the value of our work. But we tend to see it through the prism of the time and talent we invest in it and we judge it by the approval of our peers. Journalism has struggled for decades to be consistently relevant, useful, engaging and credible. Sure, you say, your organization is the dominant provider of local news, so your content is unique and residents cannot do without you. Think again …
2. What about the competition? If you are in a market with decent local television, a weekly and few fledgling local news Web sites, you can probably assume those will be good enough sources for many of your users who won’t or can’t pay. Even if you don’t have competition now, a pay wall is likely to encourage start ups, small community-oriented sites that can be operated on a shoestring. Of course, you say, those sites don’t have the breadth of all the news we bundle on our site. But these days, with links, social networks, and RSS feeds, people can do their own bundling.
3.Is it even possible to put a lid on your content? Copyright law allows others to use a small amount of your content. What’s to stop another site from posting your headline and a few words? That may be all many people want to know. And how much time and effort will it take to monitor for fair use violations? What about politicians, agencies and others who want to get the word out. If your stories are behind a pay wall, won’t they just take their news to other distributors? Don’t forget, many people who now find you by search won’t click through to the paid stuff.
4. How many users are you likely to lose? That’s an open question. It depends on your market, your users, your pay plan and your journalism. Given the unknowns, be sure to look at multiple scenarios and the effect each will have on your online advertising rates. In the process, figure out when to declare defeat if it comes to that.
5. What is your plan for finding out what people in your community will pay for and providing it to them? Circle back to Question 1. Talk to your users: Where do they get their news? What do they come to you for? What will they pay for? How much?
The pay wall works for Murdoch’s wsj.com because users think it is essential for them to make money and many of them can write off their subscription fees either on their expense accounts or their income taxes. Some form of it may also work for The New York Times because it has unique national and political content and a brand that won’t quit.
It may also work in some local news markets that have the right combination of strong local content and brand, loyal Web savvy users with a little money to spend, and weak competition. More likely, though, it could be a lot more difficult and a lot less lucrative than appears on first blush.
Clay Shirky has written a piece that is at once brilliant and devastating. In “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” Shirky argues, as I have, that we must uncouple the fate of journalism from the fate of the newspaper business as we know it. Only then can we start building a future that is more diverse, more chaotic but probably also more rich than what we know now.
Here’s how Shirkey sums up (but do read the entire piece):
“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
“When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
“We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.
“For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.”
Here’s my latest post for Leadership 3.0 at Knight Digital Media Center:
Media Management Center presentation outlines jobs for news providers of the next generation of news (which is here now)
I sat in on a Webinar by the Media Management Center at Northwestern University this week. Annette Moser-Wellman presented in information-rich outline of “Six Competencies of the Next Generation News Organization.”
Moser-Wellman’s list provides a great blueprint for organizations that are looking beyond the next round of cutbacks to becoming an organization that can thrive five years from now. To set the stage, Moser-Wellman gave an overview of just-around-the-corner technologies. She gave particular emphasis on the growing role of mobile in virtually everything we do, including the way we consume media and the way advertising finds us.
Here’s my shorthand version of her list of roles for the next-gen news organization:
1. Platform strategist. Know the platforms, know the players, know how users consume information and what content works best where. Start by looking at what people need and develop strategies to meet those needs.
2. Marketer. It’s all about establishing your brand by showing how your content is different and targeting information to specific groups.
3. Community builder. The traditional role of the news organization in a community is changing online. It requires the ability to connect people with like interests and to engage them in news gathering.
4. Data miner. Organizations must build capacity to store, access and retrieve information through meta data such as tagging. Organizations can develop new revenue streams by repackaging information in different ways. Semantic technology on the horizon will increase the potential for properly tagged content to find interested users.
5. Complete storyteller. Communication is becoming more visual, as evidenced by maps and timelines and interactives that report news and put it in context.
6. Entrepreneur. News organizations must operate in a selling environment. “News organizations will need to figure out what the end consumer is going to want and what they are willing to pay for.”
Read more here.