Critical Thinking: How Can Newspapers Convince Readers That Online Content Is Worth Paying For?

By: Heidi Kulicke

Critical Thinking: How Can Newspapers Convince Readers That Online Content Is Worth Paying For?

Q: How can newspapers successfully charge readers for online and digital content, and how can they convince readers the content is worth paying for?

Sean Jaramillo, 22, journalism senior at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Jaramillo is editor of the student newspaper, The Rebel Yell. After college, he hopes to cover either sports for the New York Daily News or the judiciary for The Washington Post.

A:
Many factors helped the online media industry overtake the print industry, but a huge reason was that the content was free while newspapers had a cost. While ad revenue online can help the medium, being able to charge for digital content will be how the industry grows in the future.

The New York Times made a move in March to charge users a subscription cost after their 20th monthly article, but even that step has its limits. As the 20th article comes closer, readers could jump from paper to paper. In order to keep brand loyalty, the subscription service has to offer something better than what is available for free.

Locally, Greenspun Media Group has a good chance to give this strategy a try. While the Las Vegas Sun serves as the main brand, it has business and entertainment publications running alongside it. Limiting how many human interest or breaking stories are visible could draw users to subscribe, provided that the free content is strong.

ESPN has a similar idea, putting some in-depth columns and potentially major developing stories in their Insider service.

Another idea is a PDF print edition. My paper’s PDF has drawn a consistent viewership in areas too far from campus to pick it up. Charge half of the print-edition price, and companies could draw readers who like the printed version of the paper but want to read it on their iPad or Kindle.

The ability to grow online revenue depends on making readers feel a sense of urgency — that they can only get exclusive and useful content from one source, and that source cannot be found for free.

Matt DeRienzo, 35, group editor for the Connecticut cluster of the Journal Register Co.
JRC’s Connecticut cluster includes the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press, and The Register Citizen, 15 weekly newspapers and four magazines. He has implemented the Open Newsroom and Newsroom Café at the Register Citizen and is currently bringing the entire cluster on board with a fully Digital First philosophy.

A:
You are asking the wrong question. Even paywall models that appear successful in the short-term are a slow-death (but probably not as slow as you think) suicide mission. The Web has opened newspaper readers to a world of information at their fingertips. The Web and mobile devices have allowed readers themselves to be information gatherers and sharers, and to do journalism. The nature of the Web is free and open, and is built on a literal “web” of connections among people, organizations, and ideas.

Paywalls literally put up a “wall” between those connections. They are a sad attempt by an industry that can’t come to terms with the changes that are destroying the print franchise, and ironic because they try to inflict a notion of scarcity and control on the very medium that has killed those concepts. Paywalls are built on a one-sided relationship with readers that no longer exists.

Instead, we should be asking how to better connect with and engage the audience. We should be putting every possible effort into changing our relationship with readers to one based on engagement and partnership, and on monetizing that new relationship. Selling print-style Web banner ads around those “eyeballs” won’t cut it. We need dozens of streams of digital revenue and advertising, sponsorship, partnership, and pay-for-consulting models that leverage all that digital platforms can do for advertisers.

If you have a question you would like to see addressed, please send it to [email protected].

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7 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: How Can Newspapers Convince Readers That Online Content Is Worth Paying For?

  • December 21, 2011 at 12:12 pm
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    For small papers, even small dailies and weeklies, who have little to no competition, they’re already doing the concepts Mr. DeRienzo is suggesting, and getting them to pay for it. In a large city, everybody thinks they can be a reporter, so there’s tons of competition. The main thing to do is offer content that is unique. Again, weeklies and small dailies do this all the time. While many large papers charge for birthdays, obituaries and weddings, other don’t, and they use those “everyone can be on the society page” concept to draw in more readers, both print and online.

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  • December 21, 2011 at 3:02 pm
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    I think the major factor is the unreliable information found on the (general) internet. Most times & w/a high percentage of probability, newspapers deliver factual information. In order to receive good, factual editorial content you have to pay for it. Reporters do not work for nothing.

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  • December 21, 2011 at 4:13 pm
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    As a partner in a magazine online for the past 12 years, we never charge a fee to readers. All revenue is generated by our advertisers. I firmly believe that a publication’s advertisers must pay to get access to readers. I will not pay The Boston Globe or NY Times anything to read content online. Their advertisers should pay to have access to me while I am on my computer. There are dozens of ways to get news and other content for free. AP News, local and regional radio and tv websites and others. Newspapers and magazines are closing because they are using the wrong business model.

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  • December 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm
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    When will the industry stop this!? The illusion that people (online or off) pay for content is simply false. People pay for experiences not content. In the print world – they paid for the paper so that they could spend some quality time by themselves discovering the world around them… or they paid for the paper so that they could look like a hero around the water cooler… or a hundred (nay thousand) other reasons that have to do with experience. The content was the vehicle – not the destination. Online content is no different. People simply don’t pay for content – they pay for the experience they have when they are reading/viewing it or as in the case of print – afterwards around the water cooler. Case in point – porn. People don’t pay for the content. They pay for the experience they have while they are reading/viewing it. Paywalls are the pipe dream of Baby-Boomer publishing execs who ignored digital delivery, traffic monetization models and plain old changes in consumer behavior for so long that it finally caught up to them – As it should with any monopoly that loses its ability to compete. To suggest that paywalls will pay for journalism is like saying that Circulation revenues must now pay for the whole paper. In most newspapers Circ only ever accounted for 20% of total revenues (in the good times). Why now do you think that Circ revenues (aka “single copy sales”) are going to become the 80% instead of the 20%? Newspapers were always profitable because of “traffic monetization” NOT selling content or single copy sales. Newspapers made their profit from Classifieds. Classifieds were profitable because they offered a more convenient way of doing something (selling things) than the reader doing it himself or herself. We had more eyeballs and we “rented” a ton of different people those eyeballs. $2/$5/$20 @ a time. We could do that because we had the best candy for attracting eyeballs. – Content. However, when digital came along the mindset was to look at it as a competitor and we forgot what business we were in – monetizing traffic. Instead, we should have (and should now) use that advantage (traffic) to build new and varied ways of being convenient and relevant to our readers. That includes in print. Anyone that thinks print is going away is an idiot. Will print be the same as it was? Certainly not – but print still carries a credibility that no other media can match. It is up to the newspaper industry to promote that fact and leverage it. Publishers – your content alone is not worth paying for. The experiences you can give to your communities – (a sense of community, accountability of politics, a central point to understand the world around us) are all valid and people will pay to be apart of them. By “pay” I mean look at your ads, support your advertisers, buy products from your online store, purchase coupons from your email deals, attend (and sometimes pay to attend) your local events. But all of those other new revenue streams will not appear if you simply take the point of view that you are in the business of creating content. You’re not – you are in the business of creating experiences and you monetize them by making money the same way we always have – $2/$5/$20 at a time for a number of different revenue streams – that are all not possible if you don’t use your “candy” to get traffic instead of putting up a paywall because you believe that by creating content your readers owe you something for it. They don’t.
    The short answer is – they can’t. People don’t pay for content they pay for experiences – in a varity of different ways.

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  • December 21, 2011 at 7:09 pm
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    Here is a novel idea – just report ALL of the facts and not just the “cherry picked” tidbits that you “deem” relevant.

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  • December 21, 2011 at 8:22 pm
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    Matt DeRienzo is spot on. The whole newsprint industry has been in denial about dealing with the necessary changes and as it always the case, those changes swept over them. Newsprint industry is merely an observer to what is happening to them.

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  • December 26, 2011 at 3:26 pm
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    Newspapers were always profitable because of traffic monetization not selling content or single copy sales like said someone up there. Thrue .. http://selo-banya.blogspot.com

    Reply

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