Readers must perceive ‘real value’ to pay

PHD Media, a division of media and ad giant Omnicom Group, has released a new study that feeds into the paid content debate, reports CNBC. Julia Boorstin of CNBC highlights a few ‘surprising factoids’.

  • The bottom line: consumers are reading more print content online, but the only way they’ll pay for it, is if they perceive a real value and when comparable free content isn’t readily available.
  • Another surprising factoid: consumers don’t care about the brand, they care about the content. (Except when it comes to sports)

Frankly, I don’t find the last one that surprising, especially when you factor in the study found that 44% of respondents in the study accessed a publication website through a search engine. Search is a fundamental shift in information consumption. People don’t browse for information but use search to seek it out and also rely on recommendations from friends.

As I’ve often said publicly, my reading habits are voracious and promiscuous. My reading habits tend to be subject led, not publication led. I seek out information. I am a little cautious of extrapolating my behaviour more broadly because I’m a journalist. I am paid to read, research, report and write. I’m also very digitally focused. I get most of my information via the internet or my mobile phone. However, recent studies such as this one show that I’m not unique in my habits.

This study reinforces my view that news organisations need to focus on developing services and products that deliver value to readers and not simply focus on building infrastructure to charge for existing content. Another take away from this study is that “just small a fraction of the 2,400 adults polled, read both the print and online versions of the same publication”. That leads me to believe that the products that we develop must serve the needs of digital audiences, and we should be careful about trying to focus digital development on services to appeal to print audiences.

The debate rolls on

The Great Paid Content Debate of 2009 rumbles on. On Tuesday at the Paley Centre, Stephen Brill on paid content services provider Journalism Online LLC said on Tuesday that people had been paying for print content for decades and that they just needed to get back into the habit online.

However, I tend to agree with Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of US public radio broadcaster NPR, when she commented at the event:

To think that we are so smart that we can retrain the audience, that’s an awfully elitist, condescending, and frankly old perspective.

Trying to bully consumers into behaving a certain way, especially in a way that is contrary to their current habits, doesn’t have a track record of success.

To be fair to Brill, he is not advocating putting all content behind paywalls and is working with news organisations to determine what content will become paid. However, I reject his basic premise, which he has stated over and over, that this is a matter of getting users accustomed to paying for content online. I do agree that to continue to support journalism, news organisations are going to have to develop new sources of revenue, digital and otherwise.

On that point, I’ll just re-iterate something that I’ve said before. In the Great Paid Content of 2009, some journalists and news executives have been playing fast and loose with facts (gasp, shock, that never happens), and one thing that I’m hearing with too much regularity is that newspapers can’t make money online, that digital is just some money pit that will never support quality journalism. I’ve heard this before in the late 1990s. To which I would say, just because your news organisation isn’t making money online, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to make money on the internet.

Suw and I were in Norway recently, where media conglomerate Schibsted has an online classifieds joint venture with several local newspapers. In a prescient move, Schibsted launched the site,, in 2000. It has grown into Norway’s largest classified site, and it’s a money spinner for Schibsted. The newspapers that will survive will realise that they are in the news not the newspaper business.

Progressive, forward-thinking news organisations made the shift from print to a diversified, multi-platform business before the Great Recession, and there are examples of  information products and services that news organisations could sell to help support journalism. Sadly, most news organisations didn’t make this transition. From the Financial Times:

Alarmingly, the industry has also so far “failed to make the digital transition”, according to a report last month from Outsell, a publishing research firm, which found that news organisations’ digital revenues were just 11 per cent of their total revenues, compared with 69 per cent for the broader information industry, which includes legal and financial data providers such as Reed Elsevier and Bloomberg. 

When we were in Norway, one of the comments that really struck me was a comment from a member of the Norwegian Online News Association who said that there had been plenty of editorial innovation in the last decade but not enough commercial innovation. To support the social mission of journalism, journalists will need to overcome their professional distate for the business side of the operation and lend their creativity to developing products and services that readers value. It’s not only possible but essential that we do this.