Will I pay for news online? Only if I don’t have another choice

I spent a day this week speaking about the future of news with a group of media and communication students at North Central College in Naperville. Amid the discussion I posed the question to the 20-something students: “Would you be willing to pay for online news?”

Their consensus was yes, but only if there is no other alternative.

This may be a welcome sign for newspaper publishers who are looking into closing the door on free content. Papers from Newsday to the Denver Post and, most recently, the Kankakee Daily Journal are planning to charge for content on their websites.

But — as one of these college students pointed out — readers may not pay for online content if it does not appeal to them. This students used the Tribune’s Red Eye as an example of a newspaper/web site combo that he would be willing to pay for. Not so for the parent Chicago Tribune.

So if publishers are ready to start charging for online access, are their online products worth buying? If your newspaper’s Web site is a mirror image of your print product, you’d better think twice before setting up the tollbooth.

Keep in mind web readership is vastly different that print. Brand loyalty that used to be a part of newspaper readership does not translate onto the web (credibility, yes; loyalty, no). If a potential reader isn’t buying your print edition, what incentive does he have to buy into your web site?

What does your site offer that a current or new reader can’t get from somewhere else? Is it targeted to a specific audience, or are you still running your site to appeal to a mass audience? What keeps your site relevant and useful to the reader? If you were an online reader, what would make you want to buy into your web site?

And, if I find something of value through an aggragator such as Google, will I be able to access it for a nominal fee (if not free?), or will I need to buy a
subscription into the site?

Finally, as an online subscriber, will I forced to sit through the annoying pop-up ads that I’ve had to endure when content was free? Will my subscription buy my way out of in-your-face advertising? Now there’s a conundrum for publishers to ponder.

This is, of course, if readers do accept paid content. As we saw with the Denver Post poll, a large majority of Post readers don’t believe the online version is valuable enough to purchase.

But it does come down to the basics. You have value in your product, which we must remember is news and information — not paper and HTML code. How you package that and deliver it to your readers will constitute its value, and whether it a value they are willing to pay for.

*If my recent post about the values of Twitter wasn’t enough to sway you, check out this episode of PBS’s MediaShift, titled “Twitter Mania: Will Twitter Change the World?” I suspect it already has, and agree this will be more than a passing fan. Twitter may fade away in the future, but something else will sure replace it.

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