You’ve heard the cliché: ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ When it comes to the newspaper business, one might also substitute ‘desperation’ for necessity.
In Chris Anderson’ new book, Free: A Future of a Radical Price, the Wired Editor-in-Chief talks about the psychological barrier that free represents for consumers. Once the ‘free’ line is crossed, at least when it involves digital content, it’s very hard to convert consumers of free into paying customers. While representing an existential threat to the traditional media model, Anderson also relates how free could drive media companies to innovate. Such innovation might entail the creation of new profit-making models based on free, as well as alternate sources of funding that match supply and demand with long-tail precision.
Needless to say, many publishers are not giving up on paid content, at least not yet.
News Corporation’s The Wall Street Journal (subscription) and the Financial Times (freemium) are two examples of publishers who already charge for online access. Not surprisingly, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch and Financial Times editor Lionel Barber predict that most papers will go from digital free to digital fee in the not-so-distant future.
It’s important to note, however, that The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times both serve a business audience that places a great value on the timely delivery of financial and market data (not to mention it’s covered as a business expense). What about publications catering to a general interest readership, such as The New York Times?
The New York Times, which has already switched from paid to free, seems less sure about its plans. After having discarded its online pay plan in 2008, The Times recently floated a trial balloon to gauge how readers would feel about paying a $5 monthly online access fee, with a discount for print subscribers. (Considering that an annual subscription is around $600, offering print subscribers an online discount might seem more like an insult than a deal.)
Uncertain about the prospects of a paid model, The Times is also exploring other options. Craig Whitney, an assistant managing editor at The Times, recently told Poynter’s Bill Mitchell that the paper was weighing the possibility of seeking funding from foundations, a la National Public Radio.
Mitchell’s piece also alluded to a pending collaboration between The Times and freelancer Lindsey Hoshaw, who is using Spot.Us, a crowd-funding start-up, to raise $10,000 in expense money to write about a massive garbage blob – twice the size of Texas – that’s currently floating in the North Pacific. Given the concept’s newness, the paper finds itself deliberating both the financial and ethical considerations of such an arrangement.
Finally, Journalism Online is presenting itself as a potential savior of paid online content. According to Daily Finance, the Journalism Online’s partners – author and media entrepreneur Steve Brill, former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz and telecom executive Leo Hindery Jr. – will soon announce the names of popular newspaper and magazine brands that will be selling their content via Journalism Online using a variety of bundled pay schemes.
A year from now we may have a lot clearer picture as to how all of these initiatives have faired, how inevitable free – at least when it comes to digital media – really is.