Many fellow journo-bloggers loathe the return of the make-readers-pay movement. As media companies file for bankruptcy or furlough employees, it’s no wonder this ugly issue has made its haunting return from the grave. This time, though, I offer a twist.
Go ahead and charge for content – some of it.
I’ll outline which content can be subscription based in a moment. First, let’s take a deep, soothing breath. For just the next minute or so, do me a favor and assume those infamous experiments, in which newspapers put all manner of strange content behind a paid wall, were failures because “they” did it wrong. Consider the possibility that CNN’s video “pipeline” was an oversimplified designation of which medium should be paid. Consider that the New York Times picked the wrong content for TimesSelect. The many local newspapers that tried and failed to wall off coverage of local sports teams operated on the same dead-on-arrival premises. One size does not fit all types of news. That’s also the fallacy of free, on which so many media base their entire Internet business model.
Instead of explaining why those efforts went wrong, let me offer examples where an online subscription model is more economically sensible than free.
How To Identify Subscription Content
What gets all of us journo-bloggers really upset are the moral arguments about why content should be paid – that writers deserve it, that sort of thing. We watch our analytics and see on a daily basis that news stories drum up page views. Some simple math turns those page views into dollars. And some simple logic shows that putting any story behind a paid wall would deflate its views and dollars.
But the other dirty secret we all know as online journalists is that a lot of what the newspaper prints is read by very few people. All those “eat your peas” stories about the city water board? They tank online. Give me a good crime story any day and watch the page views rocket upward.
Sad, but true examples.
My point is that putting some kinds of stories behind a paid wall would never significantly depress banner impressions. You know which topics I’m talking about because as good home page editors, you’ve learned to identify page view poison. Here’s the good news. Those articles are finally good for something.
How To Create A Subscription
Some short-sighted newspaper editor will likely read that last section and summarily declare all city government content hereby available only to subscribers. Nothing in life is so simple.
Yes, newspapers can charge for coverage of city government IF they post more stories about city government. That’s the paradox. But the reason is obvious. People aren’t going to open their wallets for an occasional article. After all, your theoretical audience for this coverage is not only small but also voracious. “Eat your peas” stories make it into the paper because they’re very important – to some people. Members of city government and the interest groups surrounding it fit the bill, so to speak. Keeping up on what’s happening could be worth a lot to their careers or their companies – so charge a lot.
If you hire one or two reporters to write the hell out of the city government beat –
documenting the squabbling, the zoning, and rezoning and more – then 90 percent of what these new reporters write will rightfully end up behind a paid wall. That’s because 90 percent of their stories or blog entries or Twitter posts have minimal to moderate page view generation potential.
If the city government team writes a story that will rock the apple cart with such ferocity that it would make sizably more money by being set free, then open access for that specific article. Heck, it might even attract potential subscribers.
When NYT editors looked at their Web analytics, they noticed columnists were very, very popular. If people are going to pay for content online, the editors reasoned, then the content will have to be something folks really want. They were right – a dedicated group of people did subscribe to TimesSelect, but not enough. It turns out the free columns were so popular that they created a sizable number of banner impressions, and selling those impressions generated more revenue than charging an inevitably limited number of subscribers.
What the editors did right was to assume subscription based content must be highly desirable. My point is that subscription content serves niche audiences, not large audiences. The members of the niche are willing to pay. And if you pick the right niche, then they’re willing to pay a lot.
Combine revenue from circulation with revenue from advertising (there’s no rule that subscription content must be without ads), and then you’ve got enough to pay salaries for a reporter or two with a bit of profit leftover.
Not to mention, you’ll get a few stories out of those reporters that can be used as mainstream coverage, thus increasing advertising dollars generated within your traditional business model.
I know, you’re wondering why you haven’t been doing this all along.