Monday, February 23, 2009

How Much are You Willing to Pay for News?

Modern technology has rendered the sharing of information cheaper and easier than ever before. But that doesn’t mean that all information should be given away gratis. At least that’s the argument made by Wall Street Journal tech editorialist, L. Gordon Crovitz.

The main Internet news content distribution model has been to allow unlimited access, paid for by advertising. Unfortunately, this model hasn’t functioned as well as the industry had hoped. Revenues have been falling. What can be done?

Crovitz says, “People are happy to pay for news and information however it's delivered, but only if it has real, differentiated value.”

As examples, Crovitz cites services like iTunes ($1 per song) and’s Kindle ($10 per book). “Beyond the Web,” he writes, “consumers pay monthly cable or satellite charges in the thousands of dollars per year.” Paid content delivered via wireless phone has also become quite popular.

Ultimately, it comes down to providing something of value. Crovitz writes:
“For years, publishers and editors have asked the wrong question: Will people pay to access my newspaper content on the Web? The right question is: What kind of journalism can my staff produce that is different and valuable enough that people will pay for it online?”
Some content suits the free access/advertising model. But clearly there is a market for the right kind of paid content.

As newspapers struggle to maintain a foothold in the market, Crovitz’s suggests that people are willing to pay for local information that makes a difference in their lives, and that local news is the one thing that city newspapers are uniquely qualified to provide.

I think Crovitz is correct, but that information must be of sufficient quality to make customers willing to part with their scarce resources for access to it. As far as my local newspaper goes, there has been a significant decline in both the quantity and quality of local content since the bygone days when I was a news carrier.

My guess is that newspapers find themselves in a Catch-22. They have steadily scaled back on reporting of local content due to declining revenues. They would need to beef up their staffs (and their staff skills) to provide the kind of content that will sell well online. But they see no way to get to that point from where they are.

I suppose that if existing newspapers don’t step up to the plate and provide sufficient worthwhile local content online that people will pay for, other outlets will eventually develop for this kind of information.

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