How charging for online content might work

In my previous article, I argued that the problems that are hitting journalism are more to do with the quality of the content than with the fact that it’s difficult to charge for content these days. “Why pay to read Telegraph Digg-bait when you can read BBC churnalism for free?”, I asked.

I am sure plenty of journalists realise this if they stop to think about the situation. The fact that so many professionals blame bloggers for the industry’s ills says it all. Despite journalists’ qualifications, experience and resources, their entire business is supposedly being dismantled by a bunch of hobbyists who spend the odd hour of their spare time opining on the internet.

A few weeks ago I met a journalist at a party and I engaged him in a conversation about the future of his industry. He told me he hates bloggers (whoops! — I kept schtoom). But he told me that in his view the biggest problem was people scooping him on web forums! If the professionals see online discussion forums as not only competing with them but doing better than them, that surely must make them wonder if the product they are asking people to buy simply is not good enough.

Anyone who thinks that bloggers and the mainstream media are competing is wrong. If they are competing, the media simply isn’t doing its job properly. Let us face facts. For the most part, bloggers don’t have the contacts, the resources or the expertise to do, for instance, a big investigative story.

If the media is worried about amateur bloggers, it is a pretty bad reflection on the professionals. Perhaps to distinguish itself, the media should be focussing on those aspects of content production that bloggers cannot do.

The supply of mediocre content is too high. Too much of the same sort of content is as readily available to news junkies as sea water is to beach-goers. In effect, for the past decade or so newspapers have been driving up to the beach with a tankful of sea water, then pumping their water into the sea. Later they started stretching out their hands like beggars wondering, “why won’t these beach-goers pay us for all this seawater we’re providing them?!”

So what is the answer? In my view, less is more. What newspapers need to do is offer something distinctive and different. They should specialise more and differentiate their content from everyone else’s. They need to offer less, but better, content.

Newspapers should forget about reporting all the same hard news as every other outlet is. It is a crowded marketplace so there is no money to be made there. Instead, they should work on more exclusives, investigative reporting, analysis and features.

Actually, there is a problem with that idea, which is that it won’t save all newspapers as we know them at all. It points to a future where many daily newspapers may wither. But weeklies, monthlies and specialist publications are more likely to thrive. It wouldn’t stop the press from having a difficult period of job losses and paper closures. But it would mean those who could get it right would be able to charge for content quite comfortably.

Evidence suggests that this shift may already be happening. Speaking personally, there is not one daily newspaper that I would be happy to pay for. But up until recently I was perfectly happy to pay for the weekly Economist (and in truth, I only stopped because I didn’t have the time to read it). As for specialist publications, I still like to read the monthly F1 Racing if I get the chance.

It may be the same for other people too. Recent evidence seems to suggest that many specialist publications are doing well at the moment, even amid all the turmoil in the press and the worst recession in living memory. According to Malcolm Coles, 216,000 people are perfectly happy to pay £7.75 per month for an online subscription to Which?.

Yesterday I also read about two major news websites relaunching — with less emphasis on news. On the new LA Times website, Hamilton Nolan at Gawker wrote:

Scroll down from the top of page at the new LAT site and you find: Health, Food, Education, Technology, Sports, Blogs, Columns, Opinion, Photos & Video, Summer Hot List, and “Your Scene, Your Comments.” Did you miss the, say, ‘International news’ section? It is way up at the top in tiny tiny type. Below the top fifth or so of the page, there is no “hard news” at all.

As for the new Newsday website… well, just take a look.

Someone still has to do the worthy news stories though. Maybe that can be better left to agencies or major broadcasters. But maybe a simple reduction in the number of newspapers would suffice. Iain Hepburn recently estimated that as many as 17 major media outlets are all aiming at the same audience in Scotland. We make do without 17 major supermarket chains — five or six different ones satisfy most consumers. So do we need more than five or six major news outlets?

A merger here, a takeover there and even the odd shutdown or two might be a good thing. Fewer outlets can have a higher market share, more resources, more of the best journalists — and they’ll produce a better product as a result. Five or six excellent news sources would be much better than 17 so-so ones, which is more or less what we’ve got at the moment. Surely that is what’s needed to make news a viable business going forward.

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