Paid Content: An Intellectually Bankrupt Model

The revived attempts to charge for access to news content online are moves of desperation, not reasoned strategy. Just listen to the explanations from two industry executives leading the charge.

News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch says “It is clear to many newspapers that the current model is malfunctioning.”

And as MediaNews Group Inc. CEO William Dean Singleton announced last week that his 54 daily newspapers would begin charging for online content, he wrote: “We cannot continue to give all of our content away for free.”

What you hear from these men are reasons they don't like the free-with-advertising model, or reasons they think people SHOULD have to pay for their product. You hear frustration, and you hear Ego. You don't hear a reason that charging for content will work.

I hope Dean Singleton actually reads news coverage about his paid-content move. If he reads the San Francisco Chronicle's story, he'll see two people offering wise words that he should consider. The first is from Vivian Schiller, president and chief executive of National Public Radio who ran the TimesSelect paid content experiment for NYTimes.com:
"What scares me about serious news organizations putting up pay walls is that not only are they going to kill their relevance by locking the content out of the national dialogue, but also the advertisers will flee."
The second point has to do with the REALITY of how people consume news and whether they WOULD pay for it, beyond Singleton's opinion that they should. Paul Grabowicz, an associate dean and director of the new media program at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism:

"People were abandoning what we were doing long before the Internet came along. Is there any business model that is going to support journalism at the level of say a big metropolitan paper that operates as essentially a monopoly? No, those days are gone."

What might work, he said, are models based on coverage of "very local content, based in neighborhoods, towns and cities, content or news organized around different topics."

Now that is some reporting that Singleton should be willing to pay for, and should pay attention to.

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