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Would you pay to read your newspaper online?


Newspapers are struggling to find a new business model for their online editions. Some have folded at the challenge and packed up the printing presses while others have thrown up pay walls. The only question editors want the answer to is, are readers prepared to pay for online content?

It’s the Sunday morning ritual shared by millions across the world. You trot down to the local newsagent and hand over a few dollars for a newspaper. When you get home you sift through the sections – fashion magazine, sports, international news, business and the TV guide – with each of your family taking their pick. Some of the more dedicated of you may purchase a newspaper every day but I’m guessing the majority (and I include myself) would rather log on to the laptop and read the same newspaper stories online for free. This has resulted in many commentators accusing the online reader of contributing to the demise of print.

It’s no secret that the business model associated with print journalism has become as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. Advertisers have been drifting away from newspapers, magazines and local publications for years now in favor of online platforms, and classified ads have gone online too – they were the newspapers’ main source of income but is now disappearing. ‘What now?’ is the question on every media tycoon’s lips.

I was at the Guardian’s Changing Media Summit in London the other week where the major players in UK media industry put their brains together to answer that very question. Tony Cohen, the chief executive of Freemantle Media (they make American Idol, How Clean is Your House and The Price is Right) proposed at the summit that viewers should pay around 5p (8 cents) to watch television programs on demand.

Cohen said: «We need to maximize the value of our work, we need to look again at on-demand viewing and at how to get extra money from pay-per-view. Until now it has been a nice add-on confined to computers.»

We can access so much information for free online it seems like a bitter pill to swallow to suddenly be asked to cough up the cash before we get to view a show or read an article. But maybe the tide is beginning to turn?

A report published this week by US research group JD Powers and Associates they found 40% of bloggers were willing to pay for news content.

«The most commonly cited reasons included the fact they they find value in professional journalism and that they don’t want the quality of news to decline,» the report said.

It got me thinking about how newspapers would make money from new advertising streams. The Guardian newspaper launched an open source platform in early March 2009 which allows them to share content through an API and share ad revenue too.

At the time of its launch Emily Bell, director of digital content at the Guardian, said the open platform would herald «a new chapter in our history and a new foundation for the future of journalism.»

It’s a bold statement, but hats off to the Guardian, they’re keeping themselves in the money loop through ads and are using a creative means of getting revenue from their content.

I think this is a much more reader-friendly way of making money from the web rather than setting up pay walls or using subscription methods. Although it hasn’t stopped Arthur Sultzberger of The New York Times from announcing the paper is likely to go back to charging for content, as they did with the ill-fated Times Select web service a few years back. It’s interesting to see how the big guns are reacting to the funding crisis surrounding print. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Christian Science Monitor have packed up the printing presses to go exclusively online, and as Wordtracker reported in our interview with Dan Roberts from Hearst Publishing, predicted web-only publications would be on the rise.

Securing a presence online hasn’t been a major problem for newspapers or magazines. They are in the enviable position of having masses of content; original, well written and intelligent content. It’s how to make money that’s been the headache and it’s becoming clear that there are some newspapers who will do just about anything to make money. Worryingly, it has emerged in the UK that there are some national newspaper journalists who are using rather unscrupulous methods to get links for cash.

Daniel McSkelly alleges a search marketer told him they had given a journalist £15,000 ($22,000) in return for links.

In his article McSkelly says: «I think it’s interesting that some UK journos are getting wise to the commercial value of links, though it will worry anyone who cares about the integrity of the press that these deals are being done under the table. The resulting links are embedded into editorial copy with no hint that the link is there for commercial gain. In traditional media this kind of deal would strictly appear as ‘advertorial’ or a ‘sponsored feature’ which is the way it has to be unless we’re to lose faith in our press entirely.»

This claim from McSkelly makes me feel incredibly uneasy. To think that journalists or editors are now going down this road – and in a way that isn’t transparent to the reader – is frankly, morally wrong. It should be said there’s no way of knowing how widespread this practice is or if it’s a rogue journalist trying to top up their salary, but I’d hope the majority of professional writers and editors would see the problems of accepting links for cash. How can a journalist be critical of a company or investigate the operations of an organisation when they are accepting money from that same company for links?

The business model for online content needs to change but it should be done in a way that is open and honest. The trust between a journalist and their readers is vital to maintain a loyal readership. Break that trust and that reader will quickly move on to another news outlet (and there are millions to choose from).

There’s a dilemma here for readers to consider. Would you rather read a news story online after paying for it or after subscribing for it, or as a reader would you feel comfortable reading a story that has hidden links in the copy which the editor has received money for?


From → Mass-media

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