Are You Willing to Pay for News?

If you subscribe to newspapers or magazines then you are already paying for news, so the precise question is:  Are you willing to pay for news on the Internet?  One June 1 The Times (London) is going behind a paywall, and The New York Times is planning on trying yet another online subscription plan next year.  The gold standard of news has always been to read a world-class newspaper.  For years people have gotten used to reading these papers online for free, but now it looks like free days are over.

For most of my life I got my news from the plebian news source, television.  Since the 1990s, Internet has introduced me to the world’s great newspapers and I now realize their value, and I have decided to become an online subscriber.  I just have to decide which paper to marry for my news partner.

The old way of doing things was to subscribe to the local paper and it would include a syndication of state, national and international news stories.  Newspapers were the world wide web before the WWW.  Now, I’m not sure that’s the way to go.  I’m thinking I’d rather have the best news writing, and go with something like The New York Times.  But if everyone thought like that, we’d end up with half a dozen newspapers for the U.S.A.

But then I’m not typical.  I think most people prefer local news.  It’s sad to admit, but I pay zero attention to what goes on in my city and state.  My local paper has a beautiful, and extremely easy to read, free web site, but I don’t read it.  They also offer a modest $10 a month digital edition that’s closer to the looks of a newspaper, but their free site is so nice I can’t imagine even spending that much money.

I think it’s going to be awhile before people pay for local news online, but if The New York Times and the The Times are indicators of the future, will people be willing to pay for a national newspaper?  I don’t think we will know until publishers cut off the free news spigot.  And that’s what the The Times is doing June 1.  The Times will even cut Google off from indexing the paper.  That’s going to be a major experiment. 

So far The New York Times has always kept it’s free web edition going concurrent with any of its paid experimental editions, which have always failed.  I do read the free portions of TimesReader 2.0 that I got when downloading Adobe Reader.  The full edition is $4.62 a week.  $20 a month seems steep compared to what I get from Rhapsody for $10 a month – access to 9 million songs across many major and minor record labels.  The New York Times is preparing a new paid edition for iPad owners, and I think that might be the turning point for switching from paying for printed news to paying for online news.

If I had an iPad I would subscribe to The New York Times, if the web site edition closed down.  I would also consider subscribing to magazines for the iPad.  Again, which magazines I bought would depend if they weren’t available online.  Right now I have little incentive to subscribe to electronic editions of The New Yorker or The Atlantic or Wired because they offer too much content for free.

I used to spend hundreds a dollars a year for magazine subscriptions, but cut them all out because I believe it’s more Earth friendly to read the content online.  And I don’t always expect to get a free lunch, but as long as the content is free I have no incentive to pay either.  I pay Rhapsody $10 a month because I want the music and I don’t want to steal it.  There’s plenty of free legal music on the web, but it’s too much trouble to collect.  For $10 a month I get legal access to 98% of what’s for sale.  I’d rather pay $10 a month to a service like Rhapsody if they distributed legal news and magazines reprints, than make individual subscriptions, but that’s not available.

I’m currently pay Safari Books Online $34 a month for online access to 10,000 plus computer books.  Thus, I’m proving I’m willing to pay for online content.  But I don’t always like the deals being offered.  The online editions of The New Yorker and Scientific American are more expensive than discount offers I get for the paper editions.  No incentive there to subscribe.  I don’t like paying print edition prices for digital editions – it feels like I’m getting ripped off.  Publishers are saving on paper, printing, shipping, distribution, and postal costs, and they aren’t passing any of those savings on to me.

Rupert Murdoch wants people to pay for what they read on the net, at least when they are reading something he’s selling in the analog world.  Now that’s totally against the way the Internet works now.  The reason why the Internet is great is because you can share links.  If some content goes behind paywalls, the Internet will fork into the free and non-free, that which can be linked, and that which can’t.

The Internet is big enough to handle such diversity, but what does that mean at the social level?  We get part of the population reading high quality paid journalism, and the rest will live off of free blog news.  It will also mean those sites that depend on ad revenue will have more readers, those fleeing the paid sites, thus beefing up their financial model.

But think of it this way.  Do you prefer paying for HBO shows, without ads, or watching NBC shows with tons of ads?  That also means, any content I subscribe to on the net better be ad free.  If the TimesSelect 2.0 was $5 a month, instead a week, I’d probably subscribe now if it was totally ad free.  The free, but extremely limited version, has a few ads, but they are still tastefully placed so I can ignore them.  And the amount of great content the New York Times provides with the free edition of the TimesSelect 2.0 also discourages me from paying.

Publishers are going to have a hard time selling content online, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  It’s better for the economy, and creates more jobs if we pay for what we read.  And we get better written news.  But publishers can’t sell quality content in one place if they also give it away in another just as easy to get to location.

JWH – 3/31/10

2 Responses

  1. I have to admit that, no, I would not pay for news. This despite the fact that I do pay $5 a month for the local paper–a concession to my wife who wanted to pick it up for the coupons. Neither one of us actually read the paper.

    I get my news primarily by listening to NPR a few days a week when driving to and from work and by watching the Today Show on Sunday mornings. That is pretty much it. I don’t pay too much attention to local news unless it is something that someone else mentions. That probably is a sad commentary on me, but the news is so often so negative that I don’t feel the need to fill my life with all of that. What little I get each week is enough to keep me up with the major events.

  2. Like you, Jim, I don’t pay much attention to state and local news. Never have. I check the website of my local newspaper every day, but I don’t read a whole lot of the articles.

    Then again, I don’t read a lot of the articles at any particular news site. I read more from the New York Times than most, because I get a daily email with the headlines. But I read articles from the BBC, the Washington Post, the Guardian (London), the Los Angeles Times, and many others, especially science news websites.

    I don’t read much from any of them, but a lot of articles from diverse sources. So a paid subscription really wouldn’t make sense for me. Sometimes I follow a link to an article that’s only available to paid subscribers, at which point I just find something else to read. There’s too much available free online for me to read everything anyway, so why would I want to pay for more? (I still subscribe to one magazine – down from several in past years – but I don’t even get that read.)

    I know that news organizations must find a way to survive financially, but the Internet is just not suited for paid subscriptions. When I used to subscribe to a newspaper, I’d start at the beginning and read – or at least browse – the whole thing. That’s not how ANYONE uses Internet websites, I suspect.

    I don’t know how this is going to end up. But if the New York Times starts requiring subscriptions, I’ll probably just switch to some other news source. As long as there’s one free site left in the world, why would I pay? Yes, it’s a real problem for any newspaper, but they’ll need to find some other solution, I suspect.

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