Pony up: Charging for online content needs to happen

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:15 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I admit, the notion is hard to conceive of and even a little scary. Just think about it. What if your favorite news outlets began charging for online content? All those articles and Web sites you erratically flit about during the course of the day suddenly would cost money. All those embedded links in stories would now lead you to membership-login screens, and your morning ritual of reading the news would change dramatically.    

The landscape of the Internet would be unrecognizable, and the sooner the better, I say.  

In case you didn’t hear, last Thursday, The New York Times e-mailed a survey to its print subscribers gauging possible online pricing points. The survey proposed a $5 monthly charge for access to all of the Times' online content and would give print subscribers a 50 percent discount on that price, knocking their cost down to $2.50. Finally, it seems that the harlot known as “The Gray Lady” has decided to employ a little self-respect and start charging for her online services. By August, the company will reportedly have decided on a payment method and pricing structure.

Although I agree with Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton that the $5-a-month charge is far too little, I will leave the countless economic and advertising issues such a decision entails to others. What I want to say is simply this: News compiled into any textual, visual, photographic or auditory package while adhering to certain journalistic principles is a product like anything else, and giving away any product for free is bad business. Spiteful though it may seem, I relish the thought of people no longer being able to skip out on the bill — myself included. There’s no free lunch, and it’s time to pony up.   

Of course, media outlets can’t blame anyone but themselves for their predicament. A whole bunch of baby boomers got in a tizzy over that new-fangled World Wide Web and decided it was more important to jump on the train as it rolled out of the station than to plan out the trip. There is no denying that charging for online content will be a struggle with many pitfalls, but I think it is the right decision. The idea that just because the Internet is a completely egalitarian platform, all content should be free and accessible to everyone, is a fallacy that must be corrected.

Undervaluing a product as important as journalism has put the industry in an unfortunate circumstance. "Journalism is dead," according to many a commenter on the Missourian and other news Web sites. Irony aside, comments such as these show not only a lack of appreciation for a pretty demanding trade, but also an ignorance of where much of all the information on the Web originates. The public needs to be reminded that the Internet is a house of cards built upon free content provided by newspapers and magazines. The Huffington Post would be little more than an opinion blog with some original journalism and bikini slideshows if it weren’t for these loathsome rags that have become trendy to disparage as of late.  

Charging will help remind people that newspapers are private entities and that their primary job is to produce a high-quality product — not pander to attention-starved citizens and gadflies. There has been much discussion on about citizens' rights when it comes to commenting online, and the majority of the arguments are laughable. Commenting is about as much someone’s right as it is to walk into Shakespeare’s and start taping fliers all over the walls. Do we welcome conversation? Of course. After all, sustaining and informing public discourse is one of the main goals of this and other newspapers, and we welcome the checks and balances, but all this talk of personal rights is foolish. Start a blog.   

The movement to begin charging for content online has been building, but it was going to take a behemoth such as the Times to make the first step. Toes will be stepped on and readership will take a hit, but it is a necessary sacrifice. In the end, when all the silt settles, a sustainable business model will form once we start treating our product like a product. As for disgruntled readers, the majority will come back; I know I will pay for the Times. Truth is, everyone will need their fix. News has become an addiction in our society, and junkies abound. The market will remain strong, especially when the first decade was free.   

Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Greg Johnson July 15, 2009 | 6:35 a.m.

Agreed, within reason of course. The NYT $5/mo strikes me as a cautious scouting expedition. But its going to be tough to make a living publishing. In my own experiment, recently I spent $70 on several days of for-sale ads in one of Columbia's papers. This included a turn in one of the for-free printings. Zero results. Not one phone call. When I put the same items on craigslist for no direct cost to me or readers, I got many calls per item, and the items were sold in 24 hours.

Online access isn't really free of course. For me, the month cost around $60, factoring in the lifetimes of equipment at my end. Spreading that $60 among my various online uses, my spending for online local news and ads has been less than $2/mo, which has gone to the likes of Mediacom and Dell, not the Missourian, Tribune, or even craigslist. That $2/mo serves me better than a $7/mo subscription for each local newspaper--and requires fewer dead trees. Would I split the difference? Probably. But publishers must proceed cautiously in online subscriptions, because legitimate free content and piracy wait for those who would get rich off the internet.

(Report Comment)
King Diamond July 15, 2009 | 9:00 a.m.

In order for someone to want to pay for an online newspaper you need to provide something that I can't get somewhere else for free. The New York Times has Nobel winning editorialist and extreme access to the grander outside world than the Columbia Missourian can provide. You need to go even more hyper-local than what you currently are to provide something I can't get from the Times. You are so focused in getting the content out quickly to stay on pace with your competitors you are missing out on the opportunity to do more research, have more facts and information, and beat them with the quality of your content.

Ripping on the Huffington Post for being an opinion blog is a moot point. Sure they link out a bunch, but they are a news aggregation service -- it is what they we're designed to do. If something is news worthy, and they feel other people should read it, they make the recommendation to their people to read the original article on it. Obviously this has worked well considering Ariana Huffington is considered one of the most influential people in politics today.

The popularity of the Huffington Post has allowed them to get celebrity guest bloggers and actually start producing content of their own. Sure some of it isn't note worthy, but some of it is and can be highly amusing such as Alec Baldwin's recent outburst over Jack Cafferty questioning his credentials should he want to run for office.

And at that point the Huffington Post is offering something you can't get somewhere else, original content.

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Matt Y July 15, 2009 | 9:59 a.m.

I don't mind if newspapers want to begin charging for their online content. They're free to do as they please. But their ship is going to sink quicker if they think they can cut it in the online business. The same rules don't apply.

First, you should be aware that your statement that the internet in its current form rests on newspapers and magazines is delusional. I understand you work for a newspaper, but the impact you have on the internet as a whole is negligible. The internet existed before the news industry jumped on it and it will exist afterward. The thing newspapers need to learn is that they can't jump on the bandwagon and then try to change all of the rules to fit their outdated business models.

We are at a point where I don't believe that people will pay for news anymore. And who do you have to thank? Surprise! It's the internet! It has enabled people from such vastly different parts of the world to connect and share information (no thanks to newspapers). Now, the happenings overseas are the equivalent of neighborhood gossip in years past. That information will be shared as such.

The simple fact is, you can't place a copyright on the news. You can't ban linking. Whatever story "breaks" on a pay-site will be distributed very quickly and efficiently among bloggers, tweeters, IMers, e-mail users and consumers of other news sites. And then, instead of paying you - they'll just get it for free. Like they always have.

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Charles Dudley Jr July 15, 2009 | 10:17 a.m.

King Diamond very well presented.

As far as paying for online media content you gotta be off your rocker if you truly think the average or even the advanced user would. Awhile back a year or two ago the N.Y.T. did try something like that and failed horribly where they had to open it all up all over again.

With the days of citizen journalists,police and fire scanners,the abilities of picture cell phones and more the ideas of charging for online news media content is just a$$nine at best.

If this paper or any other local paper tried to do that they sure better be putting out a far better product than they do now.

If it is the online commentary they or you are worried about with the new inclusion of on the spot story line comments then they can create separate forum boards for that to keep it off the main pages/stories which is where it should be in the first place.

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Clara Allen July 15, 2009 | 11:26 a.m.

My mind wanders to the classified section, particularly legal advertisements. There are legal requirements for those publications. Part of the reason for those legal requirements is that it provides the public with access to those legal proceedings.

Will it be the legal community adjusting to the newspaper thing and changing the laws so that courts control their own on-line publication, or will there *have* to be actual tangible publications.

Handbills of the future?

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Andrew Del-Colle July 16, 2009 | 12:47 a.m.

Greg et al.,

Sometimes, an inconvenient aspect of column writing is that being on the fence does not lend to an interesting read. (See my Fair Tax column.) I still have many reservations when it comes paying for content online, and as a journalist, I don't know what I would do if it actually happened. Furthermore, with the "nichification" of news, it is important that people have access to many different sources to help formulate their own opinion.

Nevertheless, I still feel this way about paying for content for two reasons: First, whenever I am honest with myself, I recognize that the notion is so disconcerting for purely selfish reasons. Secondly, I just can't reconcile how giving away a product is good for business or the perceived value of said product. No, we cannot copyright the news; it will of course always be out there and accessible in some form. And that is the point. The applied analysis, voice, thoroughness etc, of a publication to the news in its raw form is the assembly line that results in the final product - for better (the Times) or for worse (Fox).

I agree that charging will breed legitimate free competition and piracy, and that all news outlets will never band together, but I have trouble saying this is enough of a reason to give away a product and keep with the old model of hoping that the advertising will cover the costs. Charging a lump sum may not be the answer, but one article is often the culmination of countless hours of work and years of experience, and this should be recognized through some sort of monetary compensation.

By no means was I trying to rip on the Huffington Post as much as I was trying to emphasize my point. In fact, I believe Nico Pitney deserves a Pulitzer for his nonstop live-blogging coverage of the Iran protests. Admittedly, I was being a little hyperbolic about the house of cards, but I believe that statement is far from delusional. Of course the Internet would still be around, but can you honestly say that a vast part of the Internet does not depend on free content?

Chuck, the ability to comment does not bother me at all. That non sequitur was merely misplaced frustration with the cattiness and the annoying snark fests that continue to plague our forum. I love the possibilities the interactivity of the Internet provides. As far as our product, I am sorry you do not find it up to snuff. I'll try to get some editors together, so we can take care of that.

I could go on dissecting the topic, but I would be merely regurgitating the ideas others more knowledgeable on the subject have already laid out somewhere on the web - for free.

Thanks for commenting,


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