Skip to comments.Newspapers Online: Why Information Will No Longer Be Free
Posted on 11/09/2003 7:48:17 PM PST by quidnunc
The old broadcast model for online journalism, with free words and blinking banner ads, is heading the way of bankable stock options and the office foosball table.
Stung by a growing drift of readers and advertisers to the Internet, newspaper executives are betting on a bevy of online experiments designed to increase profits. The approaches range from new subscription models to more invasive, targeted advertising. Either way, the free ride that proved so costly for newspapers is coming to an end. Online news junkies will increasingly have to give up money or personal information to get their previously free fix.
"Newspapers are no longer willing to just write the Web site off as a money-losing proposition," says Jonathan Dube, a weekend producer for MSNBC who also runs Cyberjournalist.net. "We already see much less free information." From the Albuquerque Journal to The Columbus Dispatch, this less charitable approach has left nonsubscribers in the lurch, as the local papers of record have made their Web sites subscription-only operations. Meanwhile, many bigger newspaper companies have been investing in database technology that will allow them to track and profile Web visitors. Reader registration, once an experimental technology, has proven itself at many of the largest chains, allowing newspapers to sell specific types of readers to advertisers. And the trend is continuing. Later this year, the Tribune Company may become the first major chain to dramatically expand its pay-for-content services. "We're looking hard at all our options for introducing more subscription services," says David Hiller, president of Tribune Interactive.
At stake is nothing less than the future of print journalism. Several recent studies suggest that print readers are turning to the Web for news. Traffic on newspaper Web sites in seven of the ten largest U.S. markets grew far faster in the first half of 2002 than the total Internet user base, according to comScore, an online market researcher. At the same time, consumers with six years of Web experience are three times more likely than Internet newcomers to decrease their print newspaper reading, according to Forrester Research. Another recent poll of online newspaper readers under the age of thirty found that 31 percent had reduced their print readership because the same material is online, a number that is expected to grow. "Newspaper circulation has been declining for years, and you see an online segment with great increases. One plus one equals two," says Lynn Bolger, executive vice president of comScore.
Meanwhile, classified advertisers are continuing their flight to the Web, where costs are much lower. Between January 2001 and June 2002, U.S. newspaper revenue from help-wanted ads dropped by 40 percent, a $5.4 billion shortfall, according to Borrell Associates. Despite the current economic downturn, many analysts believe that much of that business, along with real estate and automobile listings, will never return to print papers given the rise of less expensive sites like Monster.com, Autotrader.com, and Realtor.com.
This worries many smaller regional newspapers, whose local business base has been slow to commit to online advertising, making online news more of a liability than a profit center. Without the advertising gains, the fear of lost print readership has been enough in recent months for publishers to challenge the overwhelming reader consensus against paying for content. By many accounts, roughly nine of ten Web readers are averse to paying for online news. But in markets where a single newspaper holds a near-monopoly on local news, the price of giving the news away seems greater than chasing away Web readers. "Maybe information wants to be free," quips The Albuquerque Journal's online editor, Donn Friedman, who limits online news to subscribing readers. "But I want to be paid."
This doesn't mean that readers won't pay for some online subscriptions, particularly niche offerings like The New York Times's crossword puzzles or exclusive sports reporting at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "You attach a value to a product and you make it indispensable to the user," explains the Journal Sentinel's vice president and editor of Journal Interactive, Patrick Stiegman, whose football subscription site, Packer Insider, has convinced 14,500 members to pay as much as $5 a month. Such subscriptions work because they provide information that is not available free or services that readers cannot find elsewhere. Newspapers that compete for the same local or national news, however, are destined to have a harder time convincing readers to pay.
That leaves executives with the unenviable task of putting the free-news genie back in the bottle. "It's hard to second-guess history," says Tribune's Hiller. "But if many people could redo history they would prefer that the everything-is-free Internet model had never gained ascendancy."
Liberals most certainly would prefer to keep tight control on what the public knows. Memogate, case in point.
I always knew the liberal newspaper guys would catch on sooner or later. Boy, its taking forever though. Someday they will report, not just a university department, that giving things away does not make a profit.
It will be an epiphany for many of them.
What these guys don't get is that it's not up to them. They no longer control the news flow. The only result they will find in charging for their "news" is that no one will buy it. The internet breaks the hierarchical model. Consumers and producers no longer need the middle man. The more those who are losing control try to regain it, the more they will lose.
You have to surf the web to find out WHAT is happening. Why is that ????
The free market will insure that some news sites remain free. Somebody will always be willing to sponsor a high-traffic site. And, if everybody else is selling subscriptions, the free site will get the traffic.
That's assuming the Democrats never get control of the web, of course. In which case, there would be no news -- only propaganda. And you'd have to pay for it...
Well, of course, they did. And the actual marketing model has not changed, nor is it likely that a subscription newspaper, even if presented over a digital medium, will compete successfully with a "free" one - the only difference will be the methods of presenting the advertisement and collecting the cash. It is, and always has been, quite feasible for a newspaper to depend entirely on advertising income - the "free" weeklies are proof of this - just as their broadcasting counterparts do. In short, nothing has really changed all that much, and those newspapers who are careful enough not to price themselves off the market will do just fine. Those who insist on forcing a change in marketing just because the medium has changed, in the hopes that the world will change in their favor, will go broke.
And no right to make money off of news either. There is only the right to try.
What will it go back to? Well, it could go back to people publishing news and disseminating it for free. You know, the way that most news was disseminated for the first 100 years or so that our country existed?
Or perhaps one of the newer business models, such as advertising supported, or donation supported. FR seems to do just fine on that model.
And another idea is to go the way that Slashdot.org has gone: Subscribers get to see stories first, and non-subscribers can see them later for free.
The general whine from a lot of industries impacted by the Internet seems to be, "But we can't make money like we always have!!! Somebody do something!! Pass a law or something!"
Well, too bad. There aren't a lot of professional candle makers, or whale oil sellers or buggy whip manufacturers anymore, but that's just the way it goes. Adapt, find a new revenue model, or go under.
But don't expect this very often.
The papers continue to sell.
Bloggers can cite and paraphrase and discuss articles in proprietory pay sites to the point where the public basically knows what those articles say. They can push the discussion forward beyond what the proprietory sites publish. If you want the cold, hard details, you'll have to pay for them, or at least go to a library. Otherwise you may not miss much.
There is a downside to the pay strategies. Proprietory materials don't get as much visibility or discussion, so magazines and newspapers can charge their way out of public debates. I'd imagine that when the New Republic put most of their articles on a pay subscription basis, a lot of people stopped bothering with them.
You don't say? And from the Columbia Journalism school. How thoroughly up-to-date! As a "print reader" who discovered the internet, oh about the time of the OJ trial, I've been on the net for about 10 years. Print journalism will not be able to re-capture its audience, until it revises its content.
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