Paid content versus free, revisited

By Vicki Russell
Have you noticed all the recent comic strips poking fun at the newspaper industry for giving away content in online editions? Our cartoonists, it seems, are using their clever skills to prod management into questioning this business plan.
Since early this year the idea of charging for online content seems to be getting a more serious look. Of course, the debate over free vs. paid isn’t new. The change in recent months is the tenor of the discussion. In past years, skeptics and critics dismissed the notion out of hand. The culture of the internet won’t allow it, they said. On the ’net, everything is free.
For the most part, naysayers have been correct.
Several newspapers have experimented with charging for content. Few have succeeded. The New York Times has been there, done that and surrendered. However, NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger made headlines the other day when he hinted at returning to a paid model. More and more journalists and business analysts are urging newspapers to get on with the inevitable.
As you well know, the old working concept has been to encourage traffic to a site and then sell ads to generate the revenue stream. Newspapers have over-achieved in the traffic department. Newspaper sites are typically among the most popular in any community. And we all sell ads, but the online advertising model is moving out of its infancy at a breathtaking speed; sophisticated buyers have begun to demand things many newspapers and ad agencies simply aren’t prepared to deliver yet.
While some newspapers have just started to sell views by the thousands, advertisers have moved on to pay-per-click and are now asking about pay-per-sale. And they want ads paired with content that is sure to attract readers likely to buytheir products and services. Who knows what the market will demand in another six months. More important, who knows whether the online ad revenue engine will ever become powerful enough to sustain legacy news organizations.
So, we wrestle with the notion
of charging for content. Doug Crews, MPA executive director, and I think this might be a good topic for a session during the MPA convention in October. The question is how to frame the discussion meaningfully. We don’t want to rehash the known issues but instead to find speakers who can help Missouri newspapers move forward with their various strategies.
Are you interested, too? If so, please give us some guidance. This issue is like peeling an onion. There are too many layers for a one-hour presentation. Help us drill down by telling us more specifically what you want to know. Maybe we can come up with concepts that offer greater promise and manageability than anything out there now. I have that kind of faith in our membership.

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