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.


The new ‘soft parade’ revolution

Is the “soft parade” revolution finally starting in the newspaper industry?

Consider the following:

* New York Newsday announces it will create a pay-for-content system for its Web site, charging online readers for “packages” of news and features.

* The Seattle Post-Intelligencer prints its last edition this week. Instead, it will continue to cover Seattle online, in a product that will provide free content based on blogging, reader submissions and links to other sources.

* Staffers of the shuttered Rocky Mountain News gain financial backing and announce they will start an online venture IF they can get 50,000 Denver-area readers to subscribe for $4.99 a month.

Three new business models have emerged in the past month (two rising from the ashes of the failure of the previous one). Three petri dishes brewing in major markets.

We in the industry be watching these sites closely to see just how much they are accepted by their respective communities, as well as if they will deliver enough revenue to keep them afloat. We’ll also see if the executives on these sites give their plans enough time to catch on, as well as how well they market it.

But, if any one of these tests become successful, you can be sure there will be a mad rush to copy that revenue model throughout the country.

It’s sad that these test sites are finally launched as the result of a crisis. But when you think about it, that seems to be when journalists are at their best.

A footnote: NewWest blogger Jonathon Weber offers up his simple revenue model that he says works for him.

Remember when you were a kid? There you were, with a bunch of your friends, standing in front of an old abandoned house. The one you thought was haunted? And everyone said they wanted to go in, but nobody wanted to go first? And, after several “I dare yous” and “we’ll be right behind yous” you finally gather enough gumption to go in. So you take a deep breath, walk in and, in a moment of absolute fear, turn around to look at your friends, only to find they’re still outside?

Well, Newsday is taking the “triple-dog dare” of the pay-for-content debate by announcing they plan to begin charging for its news content on the web site. In essence, it’s going to go to its parent company’s cable television roots to develop an on-demand paid news site. With Newsday taking the step forward, we’re finally going to see if people are indeed willing to pay for news content on the web.

Or will we? Newsday’s gamble is grand, but can one newspaper in a highly competitive market pull this off? Will the New York Times and Daily News … as well as the other suburban and community news sites … follow Newsday into the unknown, or will they sit outside and reap the benefits of Newsday readers deciding to get their news from somewhere else?

I give Newsday credit for trying to do something. But the plan still underestimates the loyalty of readers … or, as we may likely see, the lack of loyalty. As long as they can get content from SOMEWHERE for free, they will likely gravitate towards that.

Again, instead of forcing charges on readers, why not give them products (packaging and distribution of your content) that they would be willing to pay for?

* My heart goes out to the editorial employees of the Rocky Mountain News, which ceased publication Friday. Ironically, word of the newspaper’s demise was first broadcast through Twitter before it was picked up by the mainstreet media.

And, again through Twitter, we were able to see the thoughts and emotions of the newsroom as they produced the final edition. I noticed that the story played closely to the plot of the movie “Deadline U.S.A.” — a movie made more than 50 years ago.

Both examples say loads about the dynamic shift in information dissemination. If only newspaper owners would take notice.