Reinventing the Newsroom

The Real Subscription Question: Are You Ready?

Posted in Communities, Creating Context, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 6, 2009

Rupert Murdoch, who was briefly my boss (at considerable remove) at the Wall Street Journal Online, says he plans to charge for all News Corp. news sites by next summer. “I believe that if we’re successful, we’ll be followed fast by other media,” he says, adding that News Corp. will avoid losing readers to free competitors by “making our content better and differentiated from other people”. (More here, from Andrew Clark in The Guardian.)

I have no ideological disagreement with the idea of newspapers charging for subscriptions — in fact, I’ve urged that more papers look at the hybrid model of WSJ.com, which takes in subscription fees without sacrificing visibility online. But I think every newspaper thinking of taking this step needs to ask itself some tough questions first:

  • Is our content really good enough that people will pay for it?
  • Is our content sufficiently different from that of our competitors that people will pay for it?
  • Have we built our paper into a daily habit for our readers, and made it a place where they want to spend time?

Murdoch raised the first two questions himself, and assumes his papers will be able to answer “yes” to them. I certainly hope he’s right. (WSJ.com, at least, already can answer “yes.”) But I wonder how many papers could honestly say the same thing. And I fear that a lot of papers following Murdoch’s lead won’t ask those tough questions above. Instead, they’ll ask some variant of the wrong question, the one that’s unfortunately dominating a lot of the conversation in the newspaper industry:

  • Should consumers pay for content?

That’s irrelevant to the business decision at hand. In fact, it’s dangerously distracting. As Jeff Jarvis notes on his blog, “the debate has been about emotions and entitlement, not economics.”  In his own piece for the Guardian, Jarvis offers a mixed reaction to the news, saying he’s all for publishers charging if they can but warning that “for most, pinning hopes for the survival of news on charging for it is not only futile but possibly suicidal.”

I agree — and I found little to dissuade me in something else I read today: Martin Langeveld’s examination, at Nieman Journalism Lab, of the latest NAA/Nielsen numbers about the U.S. daily newspaper Web audience. On the surface, the numbers look impressive: more than 70.3 million unique visitors to newspaper sites in June (nearly 36% of all Internet users), 3.5 billion page views, 2.7 billion minutes spent browsing sites, and more than 597 million total sessions.

Sounds Carl Sagan big, but Langeveld does the math, and reveals that those numbers are in fact Lilliputian: The population NAA/Nielsen measured was responsible for nearly 503.5 billion page views. That means the percentage of those page views that went to newspaper Web sites was 0.69 percent. And newspaper Web sites accounted for less than 1 percent of time spent online.

That’s not daily habit. That’s not reader loyalty. Rather, that’s drive-by traffic, empty numbers accumulated by readers who aren’t engaging with newspaper Web sites. And papers that try to charge from that starting point have no chance of succeeding.

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  1. […] — and asks them to pay. (Disclosure: Perhaps because of my WSJ.com DNA, I’ve long advocated or at least not opposed paywalls and meters, and I now consult for Journalism Online.) Closed vs. […]


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