By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The Jan. 20 announcement by the New York Times that it will start charging for access to its content on the web sent a ripple through the media world, but the move was not completely unexpected. It costs money to produce quality content, and the print edition just isn’t paying the bill;
Other newspapers and web sites will try to figure out if the move marks a sea change in the way online news is offered and consumed, and whether their own content is valuable enough to charge for.
Essentially, the Times is going to use what its own media columnist David Carr called a metered model, in which some access will remain free, but consumers will have to pay if they want more. Your first 20 clicks per month won’t cost anything, but then you’ll need to pull out your credit card. Print subscribers will have free access to all the content.
The idea has been around the block a few times in different forms, starting back in the early days of online media, and other papers like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times already charge for access to online content.
According to Carr, the Times is going to in-house e-commerce structure to control its relationship with consumers. Here’s an excerpt from his column, and it’s certainly worth reading the rest:
“The Times is, in part, defining what a digital newspaper is worth – but that number is far less important than habituating a certain kind of consumer to the idea that conveniently accessing certain kinds of content is worth money. The Times has shown a great ability to leverage prices once they have custody of a consumer – more than 800,000 readers in print steadily renew regardless of what the price is – so, like the meter itself, that price can go up or down as the market suggests.”
There are plenty of media experts and critics who will blast the Times move and rally under the free content banner, but as Carr points out, the engines that manufacture quality content are running out of gas. Finding a way to pay for refueling is critical.
And why shouldn’t people pay? The same questions arose early in the online era in the world of music — remember Napster? Now, nobody seems terribly uncomfortable with paying 99 cents for a song on iTunes.
Why should newspapers give away their most valuable product for free? It’s not the paper that you’re paying for when you drop a couple of quarters into a newspaper vending box. It’s mostly the time, energy and expertise of the reporters and editors. You may not like your hometown paper — or you may love it — but the fact is that somebody has to get paid to put it all together.
Nobody thinks they have the right to walk out of a grocery store with a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread without paying. How did people get the idea that they are entitled to free information that costs money to produce? (Well, we know the answer is that newspapers themselves created that expectation by offering it free to begin with.)
There’s a critical element that has to be introduced into this discussion, and that relates to quality. Not to tar any of the hard-working bloggers out there who produce quality content, but there are also a lot of weirdos sitting in the basement in their underwear and cranking out pure crap.
Readers need to be able to make the distinction between mindless blogging and fiction and well-reported blogging and online journalis, and in most cases they can.
It will be interesting to see how readers respond to the New York Times model. The newspaper will reach out to its customers and engage in a dialogue about the value of quality journalism, which opens another whole arena of debate, since one person’s quality journalism may be another person’s garbage. But somewhere in the middle is a place where people can that a well-researched and reported story, composed by a seasoned reporter with contextual knowledge of the issue, is worth something.
It’s interesting timing, because at Summit Voice, we’re asking ourselves the same question. That’s not to say we’re trying to put ourselves at the same level as the New York Times, but for our local area, we are establishing Summit Voice as a credible source for quality news about important issues.
We have no intention of starting to charge for content, or for access to the web site, and there are other financial models to be pursued, in our case the nonprofit path that has been growing as an option for web-based news sites. The fact that consumers value publicly supported journalism can be expressed in different ways. Mother Jones, for example, recently raised $10,000 in an online fundraising drive, and grassroots donations or support from foundations also reflect the value society places on having access to good information.
It’s an exciting time to be involved in online journalism, and Summit Voice would love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Feel free to comment here, or use the contact info at the top left-hand side of the page to let us know what you think.