Journalism Online Will Make You Pay

Journalism Online, a new startup created by former media executives, thinks it’s time for you to start paying for online content. You were always willing to pay for content before the Internet came around and publishers started giving it away for free. Why shouldn’t you pay for it again, and help print publishers pull themselves out of the death spiral they’re in? That’s my takeaway from reading the company’s mission.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some content is worth paying for. Most online news content should be free, there just isn’t that much value from one outlet to the next. Now that advertising isn’t paying the bills, going back to consumers to ask them to pay just doesn’t feel right. Journalism Online thinks you’ll gladly start paying again though, because you value the information that much.

How Journalism Online Will Work
Starting this fall, dozens of newspapers, magazines and other online publishers will start using Journalism Online’s services. Most will join a syndicate of publishers that will offer single, all-you-can-read online subscriptions at an affordable price. Journalism Online will make it affordable and easier for you to access premium online content across multiple sites with an OpenID-like sign-on. If I were to pay for online content again, this type of subscription would be attractive to me.

I guess the big question I have is what will I get other than access? Won’t I be paying for the same content I’ve been getting for free all this time? Will I get premium content that I won’t be able to find anywhere else? That will probably be part of Journalism Online’s marketing message, I’m sure. It probably won’t be the reality though. And if we’re really honest, there are plenty of free sites that will provide information you can’t find anywhere else, so that’s not much of a differentiator. I’ll need more motivation than access to justify a paid online subscription. On the surface, it appears to be a desperate move by publishers who find themselves struggling to make ends meet doing things the old media way.

Pay HereHow the Journalism Online Model Could Succeed
To be fair, I think there is some potential for Journalism Online to be a big success. Here are a few thoughts on how this might work:

  • Older readers are coming to the Web. Some readers have always paid for content and would expect the same online. An all-access subscription is the perfect solution to help older readers make the transition online.
  • Most consumers subscribe to a couple of print publications. They spend more on these subscriptions than the proposed cost of Journalism Online’s services. Consumers could easily afford to pay an online subscription as an alternative to renewing their existing print subscriptions.
  • Attractive Subscription Renewals. Existing subscribers of print publications may jump at the opportunity to get access to other publications by renewing their existing subscriptions. This makes a lot of sense, and I would even be tempted by this offering.
  • The Best Publications Sign On. If all my favorite newspapers and magazines join the Journalism Online program, I may have no choice but to pony up for the all-access subscription. If I can still get my news from The New York Times and CNN without having to join Journalism Online, that might be enough for me.
  • The Kindle. More and more consumers will find Amazon Kindles in their stockings this year. What better gift to go with the Kindle than an all-access subscription to dozens of premium online content sites?
  • Relationships. It might not work for consumers, but it is a reason Journalism Online will be successful: relationships. It’s founders have them, across all types of media. When you need to get big deals done with content publishers, you need relationships. Say goodbye to free.

How Journalism Online Could Fail
On the flip side, there are a lot of people who will not be willing to make the switch from free to paid. Here are some reasons I think the paid model could fail:

  • It’s Just About the Money. It would be different if Journalism Online were doing this to provide higher-quality content for readers. From everything I’ve read, it’s all about the money; helping publishers make more of it off of the same old content they already produce. If I’m wrong on this, and there are plans to help publishers produce and deliver better content through this program, I would be more excited. That just doesn’t seem to be the case.
  • I Can Get It Elsewhere. Information is free online. Regardless of how original the paid content is, it will appear in some other form online. Most new media outlets break news these days, and few publishers have the market cornered for original content. Even if you lock up the content, someone will paraphrase articles on free sites within minutes. If Journalism Online helps publishers crack down on this behavior, it will only cause more people to seek out free alternatives.
  • It’s Harder to Share and Interact. Pay walls do little to encourage interactivity and sharing among readers (the true drivers of audience numbers and other data points advertisers drool over). Why would I want to leave a comment on a site where few others would see it? Why would I share a link to an article that requires a subscription (or pay to share that story, as Journalism Online plans to charge for)? I’d rather go to a site that is open and transparent. Content and community go hand in hand today.
  • Less Traffic. Even if you provide a paragraph or two summary for an article, you’re not going to generate the links you would from sharing full articles for free. Search engines will not rank summaries as high as full works. I find it hard to believe that paid subscriptions would outweigh lost advertising revenues that will result from less traffic on sites.
  • Increased Competition. Charging for content will only make it more difficult for online publishers to grow market share online. Today, I might be more inclined to read The New York Times online for my news fix, because it’s a brand I value and trust. When you start charging me for access, I may just find a new brand to love. Who wants to mess around with logging in all the time anyway? The Web is about speed and convenience. Charging for access makes it easier for new competitors to find and grow and audience for free.

Is It Too Late to Charge for Online Content?
Journalism Online would have been better off about 10 years ago, before we all grew accustomed to getting everything for free online. Once you get something for free, it’s less valuable than if you had been paying for it. A better strategy is to move from paid to free, creating a flood of news subscribers. Better yet, why not aggregate the best news content around a shared brand, similar to what television networks have done with Hulu? Provide something consumers will value more, rather than just starting to charge for it. There have to be better journalism business models out there beyond the free content versus paid content options.

Do Publishers Really Need Journalism Online?
Why do publishers need Journalism Onilne? Not to take anything away from the experience of Journalism Online’s founders, but shouldn’t other media executives know how to charge for their content? Is there some secret formula other executives don’t know about? Shouldn’t they be able to form their own partnerships with other organizations and offer similar collaborative subscription options? If they haven’t figured out how to make more money off of their primary product yet, what makes them think this will work? Wouldn’t signing on for Journalism Online send the message that these organizations have no idea how to run their businesses?

I wish the best of luck to Journalism Online, and I respect them for having the guts to take on such a big problem as such a tough time. I’ll just have to see it to believe it. I still find it hard to believe that consumers will flock to a paid service that delivers questionable value above and beyond what you can get for free today.

What do you think? Would you pay for a Journalism Online subscription? Would you be more likely to get your news from free sources?

Here are some other good posts about the Journalism Online model:

  • Journalism Online: The Answer to the Paid Content Question?Editor & Publisher
  • Journalism Online Seeks to Help US Newspapers Charge Web ReadersThe Guardian
  • Journalism Online: Time to Start Paying for Online NewsArs Technica
  • Media Executives Plan Online Service to Charge for ContentThe New York Times
  • How Steve Brill Pitched Newspaper Executives on Charging for Online Content Nieman Journalism Lab
  • Steven Brill’s Problem: What Clear’s Failure Means for Journalism OnlineUnbound Edition
  • (Image Credits: Please Pay Here by Myka Roventine, Pay Here by Jonas B)

    About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
    Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.

    10 Comments

    1. I don’t think you can charge when Twitter and bloggers are offering free content, often straight from the horse’s mouth. However, there’s always a case for premium content – exclusive interviews, high level analysis etc.

      Or an industry wide small charging system (small value pay per read)?

    2. Unless Journalism Online managed to get every source of content on board with their programs, I doubt they will make enough money to be profitable.

      In my mind, I liken free news on the internet to free news on the television. While I pay for cable, I don’t specifically pay for news (and as far as I know there’s no HBO-equivalent paid news channel.) I think the same way about paying for the internet, but I’m not going to pay for the news. Additionally, with the widespread ability to record televised news via TiVo or DVR systems, those seeking out one story are likely to be able to get it from a news channel on television quickly without the need to watch the entire program.

      Another obstacle Journalism Online will face is blog or Twitter talk about their articles. They can hardly control who publicly recaps the story or provides details, so nothing is stopping one blogger for paying for a subscription and then giving quick updates to their own readers.

    3. Every publisher would have to get onboard for it to work. The citizen journalist will be a huge leak in this boat.

      There are citizen journalists who don’t just reword MSM copy. Speaking for myself I actually go to and write and take pictures/video.

      Most readers are interested in what is happening in their own city, town or state.

      They can get national news from any media outlet (TV – C-Span, etc)

      Citizen journalists pick up on the abundance of interesting and newsworthy local happenings that get left by the shrinking pool of newspaper reporters.

      This is especially so on weekends. The local daily newspaper office is vacant on weekends.

      Speaking for myself again I get calls of breaking local news because they don’t trust the newspaper reporters to get it right. (I don’t feel that way as I have a good personal relationship with our local news outlets and pass on info I get AFTER I post it).

      If newspapers want to boost the content readers are searching for then they should form a partnership with the citizen journalist. More news is better.

      I used to write for a weekly but week-old rehashed news was not for me.

    4. Newspapers were experimenting with what, before the Web, were called “on-line” services. I worked for one of them, in the early ’90s, and this videotex venture charged a flat monthly rate for basic services like local news and business stories, classifieds.

      Like cable, there were premium tiers for additional services, such as AP wires, state government news and the newspaper archive. Prices for these varied, sometimes per minute or by the month.

      I don’t know how much money it made but like other ventures it did not last long. That was the time to get newspaper readers to get into the habit of paying for news and information on their computers. It’s a shame that it didn’t happen, because I don’t see how mainstream sites can convince online readers now that they have valuable material that’s worth paying for.

      Even though we all know that they do.

    5. As a voracious reader of news on both blogs and newspaper websites, as well as a young blogger and reporter in my own right, I know I wouldn’t pay for this. I was at a panel discussion earlier this month at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and one of the panelists was Darrell West, who has researched and written extensively about the media. His suggestion for the newspaper biz? Convince Congress to suspend all antitrust laws for one day so that they could collude and create a standard. Senator Ben Cardin was also a panelist, and he quipped back that what’s left of the American automakers could take the day after that.

    6. Nice post. I completely agree with your idea that paid subscriptions would outweigh lost advertising revenues that would result from less traffic. As a reader, I wouldn’t be interested in paying for news content, though I am a reporter and blogger and understand the cost involved in collecting the news. At this point, it just seems ridiculous to pay for content that has been free and that can be obtained through other sources.

      Unfortunately, it is difficult to express these concerns to management, who are desperately trying to find a way to make up for lost advertising revenue. I keep hearing the same argument: “We can’t just give away our product; it costs money to collect news.” Instead of trying to come up with a workable solution, it seems newspapers are grasping at any possibility of additional revenue they can think of. I do understand that we need to find some way to monetize the news, but I am not at all convinced that paid online content is the answer.

    7. I agree. If you read between the lines in the post, you’ll see my tone is “slim chance” – but if there were a chance, it might involve some of those options. I believe it won’t work. Others believe it will. That’s what makes this stuff so darn interesting.

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