Two news items about our business from last week:
- Circulation is down. Big-time. Average weekday circulation has dropped nearly 11 percent, the sharpest decline in years. And the big guys are hurting the most: Nearly two-thirds of the 25 largest papers in the U.S. posted circulation declines of 10 percent or more.
- Despite the drop in circulation, or maybe because of it, the buzz in corporate offices is still about how to charge for content. More publishers, it seems, are determined to make news consumers pay for what they’ve been getting up to now for free. But despite the conversation about the need for pay walls, and no lack of proposals about how to make them work, publishers realize that erecting pay walls only drives away readers.
About the only pay-wall ideas with traction now are the ones that involve charging not for the basic news content of the paper, but for supplemental content.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, for instance, has a free site but charges $19.95 a year for premium coverage of the Minnesota Vikings — a plan similar the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Packer Insider coverage.
The Wall Street Journal Online uses a model now being talked about in Texas newsrooms — offering some free content, but only teasing a lot of major pieces, which will require a subscription. The magazine Consumer Reports uses much the same approach.
The issues here, of course, are that these are highly specialized media. WSJ is the last word in business and financial coverage, and CR is best known for its product reviews. Neither — at least of that quality and reputation — is available free on the Web and gathered in one site.
Some newspapers have even offered up as a model iTunes, which lets the consumer pay for individual music downloads. Newspapers, some publishers say, could offer news downloads in the same way. Of course, downloaded music can be played again and again, and you don’t typically see news and opinion being read over and over.
And perhaps the Internet’s best example of pay-for-specialized-content is the one type of content that (until social media came along) was most prevalent online: pornography. But even with porn, you can now get pretty much all the smut you want for free, and profits for purveyors of porn have plummeted. [Sorry; some alliterations are just too good to pass up.]
Lauren Fine, research director for ContentNext Media, believes that newspapers are going to have to realize that they cannot charge for most types of news:
“[Newspapers] have to think a little more creatively about what people will pay for, what they find of value, but core news in and of itself still feels like there’s so much available that it will be hard to get people to pay,” Fine said.
The analyst believes newspapers are going to have to think out of the box to come up with the types of content people will pay for on their Web sites:
“If I’m a local newspaper, maybe I can’t get you to pay for the content, but I could create a real estate service that says you’re going to be one of 25 people who receive the first alert that a new home is available,” she said.
The real question, of course, is what kind of content the reader will be willing to pay for. One blogger put it like this in a series of questions we must all eventually ask ourselves: “What value are you providing that makes it worth paying you? That’s the question I keep asking. Newspaper folks seem to think that their content is magically so valuable that everyone will start paying if they charge. There’s no evidence that’s true at all. So what value are they adding beyond all the other content out there that makes it worth actually paying for?”
That’s the dilemma. The staff of the Center is following this issue, so you keep following the blogs and Around the Web features here, and we’ll report the newest trends and experiments in ways to charge for premium content.