Paid content, free alternatives

Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell is the latest to argue that newspaper owners need to get together and agree to start charging for online content. And as I’ve said before, I’m not philosophically opposed. But it’s not going to work.

Let’s say every newspaper began charging for Web-site access tomorrow. By the end of the day, anyone could put together about a half-dozen bookmarks giving them at least 75 percent to 80 percent of what they were getting from newspapers, provided by news organizations that are free and will almost certainly remain so.

Here are just a few top-of-my-head alternatives. I’m leaving out a lot more than I’m including.

Consider, too, that many of these sites would beef up if newspapers were to withdraw from the free Web. Nothing remains static, especially when a business opportunity beckons.

There is no pot of paid-content gold at the end of the online rainbow.

More: Steve Buttry made similar points back in June.

40 thoughts on “Paid content, free alternatives

  1. Robert David Sullivan

    Don’t forget Twitter and Facebook! Especially since print newspapers are increasingly giving us Tweet-sized items anyway.

  2. Michael Pahre

    I think that local news is the only place where a niche could be carved out, but, as you point out, the (free) online web presence of every television and radio station in the local market kills that niche. They will want to keep their online presences free, since their broadcast medium is the money-making side of the business.

    The only tiny niche then becomes hyper-local content. Which ain’t profitable, even if it is behind a paid firewall.

    It’s a hopeless fight.

  3. Lizzie

    How much would someone pay to make Jeff Jacoby (for example, the only Globe columnist I consider to have any value is Peter Hotton) go away? Would they get more money by continuing to ban a columnist rather than publish him? I would seriously consider contribute to such a shunning.
    And, fwiw, I had to cancel all my paper subscriptions a couple of years ago because the Globe/Times just could not get the paper delivered each day.
    Finally please see:
    http://www.metafilter.com/85761/How-To-Save-Media#2776753

  4. Without access to the Globe & Herald, Universal Hub would be dead, and I say that even with great praise and respect for Adam G and his machine.

    Banker & Tradesman has print and web access and I paid for online access because it was more-accessible plus it was cheaper than print, but still well over $100 if memory serves.

    No one seems to answer the obvious question, however: if not pay, then what??

    Also, yes, the Herald will be criticized (mocked?) for trying it but if primary newspapers in big cities do it (like, the Globe) then readers will understand that “everyone” is doing it.

    And, what about the comparison with satellite radio and iTunes. Yes, people say that XM Radio’s never made a dime, but it sure has subscribers. I’d say they are more an example of failure of business model than anything else.

    But, what about iTunes. And, Napster, in its reformatted form.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      John: The heart of Universal Hub is the linking to more than 700 blogs in Greater Boston. Adam could live without the Globe and the Herald. In any case, as I said, most of the free local journalism would be coming from radio and television, especially WBUR.org and NECN.com. Universal Hub would be for neighborhood items and spice.

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  6. Mal Johnson

    Building on John A. Keith’s comment: If relying on the web sites you mention: how will lawyers know what happens in the courts? who will cover higher education and the hospitals? Who will do better than Michael Paulson in religion coverage? What about local news from Washington? Who will cover the road games of Boston’s sports teams? who will make police checks at 11 p.m.? Who will cover Boston schools? Who will match the Herald’s law enforcement sources? Who will be at Boston City Hall EVERY day?
    Dan: do the research? Does news come from the air? How many reporters covering local news at the sites you listed vs. Globe and Herald. You say you’d get 80% of the news. By my count it would be with about 40% of the people, if that.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Mal: My alternatives for internatonal, national, and political news would come close to 98 or 99 percent of what I’m getting from newspapers. Local? Not so much, a point I’ll readily concede.

      But keep an eye on WBUR.org, already a very interesting site. If the Globe gets smaller and WBUR.org gets bigger, then we’re having a different conversation. Maybe Paulson will even go to work for them, as several other Globe people already have. The station’s coverage of health care is excellent, by the way.

      The biggest shortcoming would be a lack of real local investigative reporting, which only the Globe is doing currently.

  7. I agree with the points you make above, and have written as much on my blog (including a recent post at http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com/2009/10/news-may-not-want-to-be-free-but-people.html ). My news outlet of choice is currently the New York Times. If the Times decided to charge–even micropayments, even a dime or a nickel per visit–I would take my readership elsewhere. I might go to CNN, and if CNN charged, then I’d head to the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe or, god forbid, USA Today. If all of the major news outlets started to charge, then I’d head to the Huffington Post or BoingBoing. If those outlets started to charge, then…well, you get the point.

  8. If the Globe charges for online, it’s pretty clear that most who pay for online will quit buying print. Then there comes a point where their online success canibalizes print so badly that print becomes a completely losing proposition.. end of print.

    But we haven’t really mentioned that change in dynamic as it effects the advertisers, who will still need to be seen.. perhaps with print gone, they WILL then be willing to pay more for online? The way I see it, i’m not so sure an advertising model can’t be sustained through the internet. Perhaps it can’t sustain the salaries and benefits a 500 employee company, but perhaps the online version would only need 100 to be be able to put out the same quality of news as the paper. No paper, printing, no deliveries, no fuel, etc.. How many within a Globe (or others) are actually involved in news gathering, editing and reporting? If your costs were 80% less then you could obviously charge a lot less for your online advertising while making the same profit.

    But what do I know? I know I grabbed the domain name NewsTent.com which I think will describe this pa-per-news model that Murdoch and others are talking about. And I grabbed NewEnglandNews.com along with 20 other NE names a dozen years ago because I felt that this crazy new “world wide web” thing was going to have a profound impact on everything media and commercial. I just didn’t know what form it would take – and I guess we still dont know. So for all you quality, yet unemployed journalists out there, why dont you give me a call so create a turly New England wide media model, and serve the 13,000,000 residents of new England, instead of the 650,000 that the “Boston” website serves.

  9. Jenna, why would you do that? Why do you feel you “deserve” the news for free?? Do you work for free?

    Your no use to the newspapers feeding you news, if you’re not going to pay for the service; I don’t think they’d miss you. No disrespect meant, I just think you’re not being fair.

    I’d definitely pay. I’m getting something I need!

    A dollar a week?? Are you kidding? People throw more than that into the tip jar at Starbucks. Every day!

  10. John, there’s a difference in my view between “news” and “the news.” “News” is the information that matters: events, political issues, relevant legal decisions, and so on. People want–and in my view, have an absolute right to–free news.

    “The news” is the content delivery system–for a long time now, newspapers, radio, and TV. We want and have a right to free news, but “the news” costs money. That’s clear to anyone with half a brain.

    The problem with charging readers for online news content is that doing so raises the barriers to access too high. In a world where so much news is made, spread, and dropped almost too quickly for it to register to offline citizens, having access to online news sources becomes an increasingly essential component of good citizenship.

    We shouldn’t–and, in fact, can’t possibly–charge readers for accessing news content. We need to find another way, one that doesn’t limit people’s access to the information that matters to them.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Jenna: Many of us are struggling to figure out who is going to pay the people who are reporting the news that we all depend on. Beyond believing that news ought to be free, do you have any suggestions?

  11. Dan,
    One solution that I think has great promise is the ol’ prosumer approach that leverages the good will and time commitment of those citizens who believe news must be exposed to the cleansing light of day. Pay a small group of reporters, editors, and fact-checkers (this last is a necessity) and work with a broad network of citizen journalists who would be willing to attend school board meetings, art openings, and public gatherings–and who will be increasingly on the lookout for potential newsmakers. There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of us, and we hang out everywhere. And we’re willing to work for pocket change, sometimes for absolutely free.

    The job of the core group of reporters is to do the serious, tough, essential journalism that citizen journalists aren’t qualified to do. Exposes, press conferences, investigative reporting, follow-up on the content offered by citizens.

    This is not a perfect solution, of course, and it doesn’t solve many of the issues that make print media so difficult to sustain. But it’s a start, and it’s working in some instances.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Pay a small group of reporters, editors, and fact-checkers …

      With what, Jenna? I’m picking on you because you’ve told us you believe all news should be free. Please explain.

  12. Local Editor

    Jenna,
    Where are these citizen journalists? Are there really people willing to sit through board meetings just for the fun of it? I can tell you that from my experience (and I’ve been to a lot of meetings) the only people in the audience, besides the paid press, are people with a vested interest in whatever’s being discussed that night. Not a group I’d look upon as an unbiased source of news.

  13. Local Editor

    Dan,
    I’m sure if I looked through your archives I could get this answer, but I’m lazy.
    During your summer tour of web-based media startups, what was the general financial picture? Was anyone making money, or at least breaking even?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Local Editor: I am learning more all the time. And, in fact, some of that material is in my notes but not on video.

      A very short synopsis: Christine Stuart, who runs the for-profit CT News Junkie site, is unable to pay herself a salary. Howard and Billie Owens, who run the Batavian, have turned their site into a success in just a few months, although by Howard’s own admission they’re just getting by. Baristanet, which may be the most successful for-profit site of its kind anywhere, is pulling in less than $200,000. Debbie Galant told me that if a couple wanted to do it as their only full-time job, they could live comfortably. Instead, Baristanet provides a part-time income to about 10 people.

      Which leaves the New Haven Independent, the only non-profit I looked at. I am beginning to think non-profit is the way to go, as long as you can find foundations that are willing to provide grant money. They are hoping to transition over the next few years to an underwriting, public-radio type of model, since grants aren’t forever. But the Independent is able to employ more people (with decent salaries) and do more real journalism than any of the for-profit sites I looked at.

  14. Local Editor

    Dan,
    Believe it or not, I find that information more positive than I expected. Assuming one’s goal is to make a decent living doing something they enjoy, it sounds doable.
    Of course, Baristanet might be the most successful because of its location. Montclair’s a very wealthy town. I should know,I grew up there.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Bob: I agree about Baristanet. The affluence, high concentration of media professionals, and large and diverse population make it one of the very best places in the country to do such a project.

  15. amusedbutinformedobserver

    Is it me, or is the Web still unable to report on fast-developing local news — and I mean news, not the series of misadventures that are characterized as news by WHDH-TV. It seems that developing local news doesn’t get much web coverage until the newspapers write it up, edit it and post it. Radio is still the fastest, although WBZ is the world’s most boring all news station and WBUR’s attempts to cover breaking news are, to steal a line from the Globe’s great William P. Coughlin, like turning around the Queen Mary.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Amused: Depends on the community and the website, of course. Not sure how you can generalize. The New Haven Independent, the Batavian, and Baristanet often get breaking news up more quickly than their hybrid competitors.

  16. Starving journalist

    This whole thread has made me sick to my stomach. I’m working for peanuts and even had my pay cut because people won’t place ads in print publication or pay for print publications when they can get news online for free. And to boot, ads online aren’t making enough money. I quite frankly don’t care WHAT is done, but something needs to be so I can do what I love and actually live off my income.

  17. I’m not an economist, nor am I even moderately well versed in market issues, but I’ll do my best.

    First, I feel the need to explain again that I’m a former newspaper reporter whose job was cut when ad revenues dropped.

    The problem with many print publications isn’t that they’re completely unsustainable, but that they’re unsustainable at their current size and with their current approach. The sad fact is that a newspaper can’t make a profit by hiring x number of reporters, y number of supporting employees, and z number of editors.

    So let’s find a way to keep newspapers viable by hiring x-a reporters, y-b support staff, and z-c editors.

    As I’ve explained before, while I believe news (culturally relevant information) should be free, the news (the content delivery mechanism) costs money. It’s not ‘news’ people pay for when they subscribe to a newspaper; it’s ‘the news.’ (Which, btw, is why people get mad at formatting and stylistic alterations–it’s not what they paid for.)

    Keeping a news source afloat means engaging creatively with new economic structures and approaches to journalism. It means working with citizens who are willing to donate their time and energy (or who can work for peanuts, because they have other income sources), and hiring a core group of reporters who are willing to shift as needed to meet other journalistic needs. It means developing a dynamic approach to news coverage: Working with citizens’ interests and willingness to formally report on certain types of events, and filling in the gaps with jack-of-all-trades reporters and reportage.

    What print sources do best–and what citizen journalists are unlikely to do well–is hard-hitting, investigative reporting. People will pay for this–I would, and do, god knows. This is perhaps a good example of the difference between ‘news’ and ‘the news’: When a scientologist dies from her church’s bizarre approach to treating her depression, that’s news. When people spend months, as Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin did, investigating the church of scientology, its officials’ abuse of church members, and the hidden causes of that woman’s death, that’s ‘the news.’ And that’s the news that we will pay for.

    None of this, by the way, is ideal. In an ideal world, newspapers would remain viable news sources with sustainable business models and a wide readership. But no matter how hard we wish to return to that blessed journalistic era, no amount of wishing will bring those days back. Instead of bemoaning the grand old days, then, we need to start trying to make sense of and join in on the cultural restructuring of content, information, and news.

  18. JOhn

    If someone can get something for free, they will not pay for it. If someone offered them free coffee, they would take it over Starbucks. They might splurge for Starbucks over the free coffee once in a while. Sounds like a risky business model

  19. Another risky business model is the “let’s just hope something changes for the better” approach that lots of news corporations are taking.

    We also call this the “head in the sand” approach.

    Dan: No, I’m not at all opposed to advertising as a means for paying for news–in fact, that’s probably the best way to fund news (or the news, whichever you prefer), though using a different formulation than we’ve seen in the past.

  20. mike_b1

    At what point do papers start looking at their columnists and asking, Just how many of these do we need? Does the Globe truly need Ryan and The CHB and MacMullen and DuPont and Collins and whomever is doing football now? Put ’em on a beat, or kick ’em out.

    They have three Metro columnists doing two pieces a week. Whoopee. I remember when in his late 60s the great Mike Royko decided to cut back … to four columns a week.

    It’s waste. Pure waste.

  21. Starving journalist

    I don’t think news corporations are going to get many “citizens who are willing to donate their time and energy (or who can work for peanuts, because they have other income sources)”. Who wants to work and not get rightfully compensated? And if they have another income source, chances are they aren’t going to waste their time on such a project if they have a life. Unless these people you are talking about are bloggers.

  22. Oh, and just one more smaller point from that survey: 35% of bloggers have previously worked in print media in some capacity. Compare that to the 1% of the general population that has print media experience.

  23. Patricia

    OK, I skim-read the Technorati posts on the “State of the Blogosphere 2009.” (Sorry for the skim-reading; it’s been a long day.) But I still don’t see how blogging, in and of itself, is going to provide a living salary for the vast majority of bloggers. Yes, Technorati calls some of them “the Self-Employeds,” but I strongly suspect that these folks make their real money elsewhere and the blogging is a tool to increase that income. Take one of the folks Technorati interviewed, Seth Godin — he writes books, he gives talks (for some decent speaking fees, I’ll bet), and is the founder of a Web company. Yeah, they have a life, and the blogosphere helps them make a living, but it is not the sole source of income by a long shot.

    I’m not terribly impressed by the statistic that 35 percent of bloggers have some print media experience. Far fewer than 35 percent of the folks who worked on my college daily newspaper are still in print media, including one Boston Herald veteran who went into teaching in the public schools.

    As far as the distinction between “news” (commodity) and “the news” (investigative journalism) … well, sometimes you discover things that need to be investigated in the course of reporting some very ordinary news. The two don’t exist in entirely separate spheres.

  24. InsiderNegot

    Newsday to begin charging for online access.

    Newsday in Melville, N.Y., said it will begin to charge non-subscribing readers $5 to access its full Web site, beginning this week.

    Newsday is the first major metro to restrict online information to paying customers since The New York Times shuttered its TimesSelect service in 2007.

    Readers who already subscribe to the print edition will have free access to the site. Non-subscribers will still be able to see limited portions of the paper’s site.

    http://newsandtech.com/dateline/article_dfe5667c-c25a-11de-bc32-001cc4c03286.html

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Newsday is not a good indication of where we might be going, since the Web site will also be freely available to everyone who’s on Comcast, which owns the paper. I read somewhere that 75 percent of the local circulation base is a Comcast subscriber.

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