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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Another subscriber says no to print - but yes to paying for news online

Jimmy Guterman, editorial director of O'Reilly's Radar group, has bid farewell to his New York Times subscription. I think he articulates well what so many are thinking:

"It was hard to say no to the Times. The quality was high, the thump of the paper on the sidewalk was a pleasant sound to hear first thing in the morning, I liked the serendipity of walking through a print section, and I felt obligated to pay for the paper at a time when print subscribers were becoming an endangered species.

"But, after years of wavering, I'm done... What finally made me give in to the inevitable was realising, one barely-dawn morning last week when I was reading the paper at our kitchen table, that I had already read much (most?) of it online. For all the pleasure of holding and print, the Times on paper is just too late."
He goes on to say that he'd pay to read it online. "I would gladly pay for the pleasure and convenience of reading the paper online, just as I do for The Wall Street Journal, but I don't have that option. In this era of advertising-is-the-only-business-model, management at the Times Company has decided that I've decided that the value of what it sends to me is zero. I disagree."

It's an interesting argument that rumbles on. Should papers charge for online news? The Wall Street Journal looked for a while like it was going to drop its paywall, but has kept it for the most part, opening up only commentary and opinion. But most others dropped paywalls a while ago.

I've been in the keep-it-free camp for a while. For daily news, anyway. I know I wouldn't pay for access to a news website right now - I don't need any one site badly enough and there are plenty to choose from. Then again, I empathise with Guterman over the New York Times. I love it too, and would hate to see it disappear.

You know what they say about value: the more you charge for your services the more people value what you're selling. And I suspect, if I'm honest, that if the New York Times disappeared behind a paywall I'd want to get in there. But -and it's a big but - that's only because I know the site's good, and the only reason I know it's good is because I've followed bloggers' links to great content like their slide shows, video obituaries and columns. Put up a paywall and bye-bye bloggers.

I see this period as one of brand-building for news companies and staking out territory online. It doesn't seem smart to shut potential users out before they've had a chance to get to know you, and especially before you've had a chance to develop a really useful site and - importantly - services. The New York Times has an impressive site, most news organisations don't, at least not yet.

I find myself thinking quite a bit about what comes next for someone like me - a motivated, regular news consumer. Nine times out of ten I come up with a different answer, but here's today's musing.

There's Google news, of course (fed by mainstream media companies). There are non-mainstream, niche, user-generated, aggregated sites and voting. There are sites that mix it all up - raw press releases cheek by jowl with agency news feeds and UGC (user generated content). Technology makes everyone and anyone a potential news gatherer and reporter - shoot it, write it, blog it. There's news on my homepage, Facebook page, Twitter. And that's all good, as far as it goes.

But I think a trusted brand counts for a lot. Even more so as the volume of information we encounter online grows to deluge proportions. Yes, I want to be able to check out raw press releases if there's something of particular interest to me. And, yes, I'm reassured to know I can read council documents online (although that doesn't mean I will). But, no, I don't want to trawl through a dozen sites a day or spend hours going about it.

I'm busy. For the main news of the day, I want someone else to read council reports and newsfeeds and pick out the stories likely to be relevant or interesting to me. That role of filtering, sifting, selecting news is just as important as ever. And I want to know that whoever does it observes the standards I've come to value - fairness, accuracy and balance. In other words, a trusted news source.

Maybe it's not a matter of whether we should be charging for daily news online, but when. Or, more importantly, how.

Maybe the day will come when we're all so overwhelmed by information and opinion that we will be happy to shell out for timely packages of well-written news delivered how and when we want by trusted news organisations. The key, surely, will be those timely packages. I might not pay to come to your website. But I might pay for you to bring your website to me providing you can do it in an engaging, relevant, unobtrusive, timely, technologically-wow, one-click simple way.

I don't mean a daily email digest. Well, maybe a daily email digest with video bulletin, columns, blogs, lifestream feeds, quote of the day, cartoon, market data and images that show up in my inbox/inboxes (email/lifestream/feed reader/homepage/phone) and are laid out nicely and can be viewed inline (ie without having to visit your website or open a media player). A web page in my inbox, if you will (plus a tweet in my Twitter feed, a text on my phone etc). And maybe it would be an aggregated digest, let's say from the New York Times, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, NZ Herald and Viet Nam News.

Ach, I don't know. The only thing I ever paid for online was a one-year subscription to the New York Times crossword archive when I was addicted to that big, themed weekend crossword they run. But only once, and a long time ago. Also virus protection and some telephony services. That's it.

One thing I do know is that email is constant. I always check it. All day, every day. Facebook comes and goes, I rarely answer my phone, I get round to Google reader when I can. I love Twitter right now, but who knows how I'll feel about it in November? Email endures.

Any which way, today is not the day I volunteer to pay for 'online' news. But it doesn't seem as far-fetched as it once did.


Sam Farrow said...

The good thing about free access to online news content from a publishers point of view is that the pricing model is stable.

When News 2.0 (semantically marked up articles, integrated data feeds etc) arrives, hopefully by the end of 2008 in NZ, it could well tip the balance towards a subscription based model.

Julie Starr said...

Thanks for making the point about pricing stability.

And I agree that the semantic web looks like the key that opens the subscription model door. Even at the most fundamental level - choosing what feeds I want in my inbox - it's a faff at the moment filling out forms and ticking endless boxes. When selection and suggestion become more intuitive and streamlined, the whole thing becomes more attractive.

I'm interested to hear more about these semantically marked up articles, integrated data feeds and their likely application in NZ...