What content will people pay for?

Four years ago, I went to the Web+10 conference at the Poynter Institute in Florida. It was an honour to meet some of the pioneers in digital journalism, many of whom I had corresponded with online for years but never had the opportunity to meet. It was 2005, long before the depth of the crisis in newspapers was obvious to all, but everyone was asking the same question: How do we pay for professional journalism? Contrary to popular belief in the industry, newspaper websites were profitable, some quite profitable, but those profits could not sustain the size of newsroom that big-city metros in the US had at the time, newsrooms that dwarfed the size of the British national newspapers.

The crisis has been coming for years as newspapers have seen circulation declines for decades, but the Great Recession is amplifying pressures on newspapers. You read blog posts and articles from journalists and editors who say that the public should pay, must pay for ‘quality journalism’. We hear arguments that they will pay as content becomes scarce with the decline in the number of journalists and the number of newspapers. Leonard Witt, the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University in the US, says in this post:

So will people pay for high quality journalism and information? I do think so because I know one person intimately who already has. And trust me that person is very tight with his money.

Keep in mind, I am saying high quality news and information. Run of the mill junk is a worthless commodity. High quality journalism is scarce and will be more so in the future, and that’s when everyone who loves great journalism will begin to pay.

But I tend to agree with David Kohn, of spot.us, who says this in the comments:

I think this is right on Lenn – as you know, I tend to agree with you. But more and more I’m realizing that certain types of news and information that journalists think is priceless have less value than others.

David elaborates on his point back on his blog citing lessons he’s learned from various citizen journalism and crowd-sourced projects.

Increasingly I’m of the belief that the newspaper industry is relying far too much on its values in its estimates of what readers value enough to pay for. We need some solid facts and figures on what people will pay for. I might be hoping for concrete data that just doesn’t exist right now, but I think we as journalists have to move from asserting what people should pay for and do a little reporting and research to find out what people will pay for and the types of services that might be able to subsidise professional journalism.

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