Will the public pay for news? We’re about to find out

We’re very close to learning whether the news consuming masses will accept something that would have been an absurd notion two decades ago: paying for digitally-delivered news.

Up to now, readers have been able to get their news fixes free by simply clicking on a newspaper’s website, or using a news aggregator like Google or any one of thousands, and scanning the headlines. Most of the stories they’ve seen originate from the printed product or a news agency, though the “digital first” strategies have even upped that ante. Reporters now tweet their notes as they work a story, revealing the minute details of the emerging story before it’s even written. And news readers can even have news flashes sent directly to their desktops, handheld devices without having to pay a dime to contribute to the costs of maintaining news staffs.

The proverbial chickens have come home, however, and the ongoing bleeding of advertising lineage and paid subscribers at daily newspapers has forced even the mighty New York Times to get serious about putting up toll gates to force dedicated news junkies to pay up. If it works, expect others to quickly follow.

The Times is going to lower the cantilever on March 28. At that point, there will continue to be free access to the Times’ homepage as well as free side-door access (via outside links, etc.) to individual Times articles. And you can gaze and graze freely each month until you hit 20 articles. After which: Wall up. Pay up.

The Times has divided its payment offering into different packages: $15 for a month of access to NYTimes.com and the paper’s smartphone app; $20 for web access and an iPad app; and $35 for an all-access plan.  Print subscribers, as the Times has said from the get-go, will get digital access included in their subscriptions. That’s true for any subscriber, seven-day-a-week or less — a nice reward for brand loyalty.

Gannett Newspapers will be launching digital subscriptions they hope will return $1.3 billion to shareholders by 2015.

I hope to speak to the publisher and editor of one of those Gannett papers, the San Antonio Express-News, when I travel to Texas March 20. I’m there to shadow their reporters, to allow me to see firsthand what has changed in the journalists’ toolbox as a result of the smartphone/tablet revolution. But the big picture is just as fascinating.

Why study an American paper?

PostMedia in Canada will follow with a similar model later in the year. Publishers recently visited the Times and CEO Paul Godfrey has extolled the virtues of the pay wall concept. While not as adversely affected by the digital revolution and economic slowdown south of the border, PostMedia has been watching its newspaper revenues decline each quarter and is aware of the lag in trends between the U.S. and Canada.

I hope they all work. In spite of all the hype, the “citizen journalism” movement, where ordinary citizens through their tablets and smartphones fill society’s demand for watchdog reporting,is failing. The term “robocalls” would not be on our lips if it were otherwise.

 

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1 comment
  1. The NYT tried this once before and failed, right? I don’t know how trying it a second time will be any different. In the rush to be on the web, newspapers and magazines failed to realize what this would mean. Why would a consumer buy something when they can get it for free? Harder still, is offering something free for years, only to turn around and expect money for it. Plus, the idea of buying something virtual is still new – when consumers buy something, they still expect something physical in return. This will change with time, but not immediately.

    Also something to consider is the speed of social media. Twitter reports news faster now then newspapers in some cases. If you want the latest and greatest, read your twitter feed. Newspapers have also not considered how this will hinder Twitter as a reporting tool. Editors won’t want them tweeting news if someone will pay for it later.

    Lastly, unless all media outlets change their business models at the same time, I don’t see how it will work. If PostMedia expects people to eventually pay to read content, that’s fine, readers will go elsewhere. Also, the expectations for something different in terms of coverage will be too high to sustain a paying digital model.

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