Free does not mean that content has no value, but when the very sustenance of the entity producing that content is in danger, the concept of “free” begins to edge closer to devaluing content.
But even if content online has been free for so long, if it is captured back and tightly shut under a pay wall, does it become more valuable as a result? Or would news organizations have to earn that money if and when they finally achieve that pay wall?
As has been pointed out several times before, and on this blog as well, pay walls have been tried, tested and have, in effect, mostly failed. But many of the experiments that have involved paid content have erected pay walls around generic content or opinion that would perhaps be available elsewhere for free.
Moving toward specialized content
It is a pretty reasonable assessment that the more reasons a news Web site gives its readers to spend time on a site, perhaps by offering in-depth, contextual and narrative journalism, the higher the chances are that they will linger on the page longer, and even buy products through targeted advertising. And for better or for worse, this idea that the most engaged readers of a Web site will not only be willing to pay for content but also click through and purchase products advertised on the side of it is catching on.
As Steve Myers writes in Poynter:
“…pay structures create narrower, more specialized audiences and offer more opportunities for higher-yield, behaviorally-targeted advertising, which changes depending on users’ online habits.”
He explains that as paid sites start to attract more focused readers who recognize and identify a brand and content, it would also make it easier for news organizations to use targeted advertisements.
Free and paid content can co-exist
What worries me, however, is that news organizations are looking at options as either-or propositions. Getting your users to pay for content does not mean you can do away with Google, like Rupert Murdoch seems to believe.
There’s no denying that random visitors that are led to a site through search engines account for a large enough percentage of revenue to be ignored, as Paul pointed out in a previous post. In fact, it’s been roughly estimated that stumbling from search engines can make a news site about 50c a day per person, way less than subscriptions can, but it is still close to a hundred million a year, considering the average newspaper gets about a million visitors per month through Google searches alone. For the actual math, I direct you to the excellent Ryan Chittum at CJR.
Hence, blocking Google might not be the answer, but it is also important to note that the Wall Street Journal does have over a million readers subscribing to its content monthly, and since these users prove to be valuable to advertisers, specialist content could well be the answer for other newspapers as well.
There have been complaints all around that for an industry on the brink of collapse, news organizations are less than savvy in the area of market research, and aren’t doing much at all to help determine the monetary value of the content they offer and the kinds of products they should be providing in order to make money.
Instead, what many news organizations have resorted to over the years, is the “massification” of news in order to appeal to the broadest conceivable audience, a process that merely erodes the quality of journalism, without offering solutions for revenue generation, since such audiences do not have a brand identity that advertisers can appeal to.
As Slate editor David Plotz points out, the more media companies and editors begin to focus on the numbers, the faster they will shift from their pursuit of a “mass audience” and begin to produce more exclusive, in-depth content. Along that line of reasoning, Steven Brill’s Journalism Online plans to charge only the most frequent users who seek very specific content while allowing cursory surfers to avail of most topical news for free.
Following the lead of financial publications
Successful pay models, such as the Economist’s premium content, and the Financial Times’ paywalls are, after all, based on loyal readers returning to a site frequently on account of the exclusive content it provides. Financial publications, of course, are in a league of their own when it comes to paywalls, because of their high value, well-differentiated content and affluent consumers.
But as WSJ.com’s Alan Murray explained in an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, most news organizations should be able to tap into the idea that loyal readers will pay for exclusive information, as long as they steer clear of charging for the most popular content, which has the potential to yield maximum traffic and hence, revenue.
Whether it is due to declining ad revenues and falling readerships or the recession, newspapers in the US from the Minneapolis Post to the Arizona Republic, are adopting the idea of pursuing these “loyal readers” to sell their content. Others, like the Tribune company, are merely seeking them to target advertising.
Very early this year, Andrew Currah, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, called on news organizations to not give up their core editorial values in the quest for clickstream data, not simply because such lack of focus would be detrimental to journalism, but because it would not prove to be beneficial to revenue generation in the long run.
“The basic logic of a webcentric strategy is to maximise the size of the audience around the news, for as long as possible. But a rush to generate clicks may in fact erode the distinctiveness of the brand and its connection to a specific audience,” Currah wrote.
Regardless of what they’re seeking – direct payment for content or indirect revenue through clickthrough advertising - specialized, in-depth content to retain that brand and connection has got to be good for journalism.