Journalism Online, a new startup created by former media executives, thinks it’s time for you to start paying for online content. You were always willing to pay for content before the Internet came around and publishers started giving it away for free. Why shouldn’t you pay for it again, and help print publishers pull themselves out of the death spiral they’re in? That’s my takeaway from reading the company’s mission.
Now, don’t get me wrong, some content is worth paying for. Most online news content should be free, there just isn’t that much value from one outlet to the next. Now that advertising isn’t paying the bills, going back to consumers to ask them to pay just doesn’t feel right. Journalism Online thinks you’ll gladly start paying again though because you value the information that much.
How Journalism Online Will Work
Starting this fall, dozens of newspapers, magazines, and other online publishers will start using Journalism Online’s services. Most will join a syndicate of publishers that will offer single, all-you-can-read online subscriptions at an affordable price. Journalism Online will make it affordable and easier for you to access premium online content across multiple sites with an OpenID-like sign-on. If I were to pay for online content again, this type of subscription would be attractive to me.
I guess the big question I have is what will I get other than access? Won’t I be paying for the same content I’ve been getting for free all this time? Will I get premium content that I won’t be able to find anywhere else? That will probably be part of Journalism Online’s marketing message, I’m sure. It probably won’t be the reality though. And if we’re really honest, there are plenty of free sites that will provide information you can’t find anywhere else, so that’s not much of a differentiator. I’ll need more motivation than access to justify a paid online subscription. On the surface, it appears to be a desperate move by publishers who find themselves struggling to make ends meet doing things the old media way.
How the Journalism Online Model Could Succeed
To be fair, I think there is some potential for Journalism Online to be a big success. Here are a few thoughts on how this might work:
- Older readers are coming to the Web. Some readers have always paid for content and would expect the same online. An all-access subscription is the perfect solution to help older readers make the transition online.
- Most consumers subscribe to a couple of print publications. They spend more on these subscriptions than the proposed cost of Journalism Online’s services. Consumers could easily afford to pay an online subscription as an alternative to renewing their existing print subscriptions.
- Attractive Subscription Renewals. Existing subscribers of print publications may jump at the opportunity to get access to other publications by renewing their existing subscriptions. This makes a lot of sense, and I would even be tempted by this offering.
- The Best Publications Sign On. If all my favorite newspapers and magazines join the Journalism Online program, I may have no choice but to pony up for the all-access subscription. If I can still get my news from The New York Times and CNN without having to join Journalism Online, that might be enough for me.
- The Kindle. More and more consumers will find Amazon Kindles in their stockings this year. What better gift to go with the Kindle than an all-access subscription to dozens of premium online content sites?
- Relationships. It might not work for consumers, but it is a reason Journalism Online will be successful: relationships. It’s founders have them, across all types of media. When you need to get big deals done with content publishers, you need relationships. Say goodbye to free.
How Journalism Online Could Fail
On the flip side, there are a lot of people who will not be willing to make the switch from free to paid. Here are some reasons I think the paid model could fail:
- It’s Just About the Money. It would be different if Journalism Online were doing this to provide higher-quality content for readers. From everything I’ve read, it’s all about the money; helping publishers make more of it off of the same old content they already produce. If I’m wrong on this, and there are plans to help publishers produce and deliver better content through this program, I would be more excited. That just doesn’t seem to be the case.
- I Can Get It Elsewhere. Information is free online. Regardless of how original the paid content is, it will appear in some other form online. Most new media outlets break news these days, and few publishers have the market cornered for original content. Even if you lock up the content, someone will paraphrase articles on free sites within minutes. If Journalism Online helps publishers crack down on this behavior, it will only cause more people to seek out free alternatives.
- It’s Harder to Share and Interact. Pay walls do little to encourage interactivity and sharing among readers (the true drivers of audience numbers and other data points advertisers drool over). Why would I want to leave a comment on a site where few others would see it? Why would I share a link to an article that requires a subscription (or pay to share that story, as Journalism Online plans to charge for)? I’d rather go to a site that is open and transparent. Content and community go hand in hand today.
- Less Traffic. Even if you provide a paragraph or two summary for an article, you’re not going to generate the links you would from sharing full articles for free. Search engines will not rank summaries as high as full works. I find it hard to believe that paid subscriptions would outweigh lost advertising revenues that will result from less traffic on sites.
- Increased Competition. Charging for content will only make it more difficult for online publishers to grow market share online. Today, I might be more inclined to read The New York Times online for my news fix, because it’s a brand I value and trust. When you start charging me for access, I may just find a new brand to love. Who wants to mess around with logging in all the time anyway? The Web is about speed and convenience. Charging for access makes it easier for new competitors to find and grow and audience for free.
Is It Too Late to Charge for Online Content?
Journalism Online would have been better off about 10 years ago before we all grew accustomed to getting everything for free online. Once you get something for free, it’s less valuable than if you had been paying for it. A better strategy is to move from paid to free, creating a flood of news subscribers. Better yet, why not aggregate the best news content around a shared brand, similar to what television networks have done with Hulu? Provide something consumers will value more, rather than just starting to charge for it. There have to be better journalism business models out there beyond the free content versus paid content options.
Do Publishers Really Need Journalism Online?
Why do publishers need Journalism Online? Not to take anything away from the experience of Journalism Online’s founders, but shouldn’t other media executives know how to charge for their content? Is there some secret formula other executives don’t know about? Shouldn’t they be able to form their own partnerships with other organizations and offer similar collaborative subscription options? If they haven’t figured out how to make more money off of their primary product yet, what makes them think this will work? Wouldn’t signing on for Journalism Online send the message that these organizations have no idea how to run their businesses?
I wish the best of luck to Journalism Online, and I respect them for having the guts to take on such a big problem as such a tough time. I’ll just have to see it to believe it. I still find it hard to believe that consumers will flock to a paid service that delivers questionable value above and beyond what you can get for free today.