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How not to get people to pay for news

March 27, 2010

 He’s going for it, Murdoch has announced that Times Online will begin to charge, get this, $1.50 a DAY for access to their online news!

Oh ya, that’s gonna work out great. I am not against papers trying to implement incremental charges to fund their journalism costs. Nothing comes for free and advertising is not free. But any pay for access system needs to account for how people actually use the internet and how much a single read is worth.

I find articles by searching, linking from aggregator blogs or following links on twitter. So I’m not going to log into a particular newsite, pay $1.50 and then read a whole bunch of articles that day. I might read one article from your site, if its comes to the top in my google news search, or a big blog links to it. But if it asks me to pay I just go back and read an article about the same event from the Guardian or the New York Times. Now maybe they’ll all make me pay, you say. Well, they won’t, if just a few are free they’ll get a lot more readers and their advertising will become profitable.

But lets say a lot of paper do begin to charge in some way. There will be a huge competitive pressure to make that fee small and incremental. The only kind of fee that will work for online news is a per-article fee and it needs to be really small, like one penny small. On top of that it needs to be dead simple to pay, using something everyone already uses, like itunes or amazon. If I could click on a button beside your article that deducts a penny from my itunes account it might stop me from hitting the back button.

I can think of something close to this working for magazines, but not papers. A good magazine, with compelling content could convince me to pay for an entire issue, but it can’t be time limited at all. I’d click a button to get unlimited, nonexpiring access to a single issue of the Economist or New Scientist or Maclean’s, for example. I might even pay $4 or $5 for it. But a newspaper, that’s out of date the next day, and might have one or two articles I want to read? Why in the name of HTTP would I pay $1.50 for that?

Pay for access may be the only to save the credible, professional journalism industry. It can provide a valid add in quality of content for our news over the free blogs that will never go away. So whatever newspapers do to get money for access to their content it must admit they are dealing with fickle (not loyal) readers who have a free alternative that isn’t that much worse just a few clicks away. The amount plus effort you are making people pay must come out less than the effort of finding another source of similar quality. It can be done, but this is not the way to do it.

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