US paper sets limit for free local articles

In a hint at the thinking behind the New York Times’ paid content strategy, a local paper it owns will allow subscribers to read all news content, but non-subscribers will be asked to pay after viewing a “predetermined number of staff-generated local news articles“. The Times owned Worcester Telegram & Gazette writes:

After users pass that limit, they will be asked to pay a monthly charge or buy a day pass. The price and threshold have not been determined.

The article states that most content on the site will remain free with the pay meter being set only for content produced by the Telegram & Gazette news staff.

This is yet another refinement in the paid content strategies being proposed, and it moves further away from the kind of binary, universal paywall versus free argument. The binary argument makes good copy, a nice bit of media biz argy bargy, but it hasn’t done much to help the failing fortunes of the newspaper business. Besides, most sensible people in the business know that a more sophisticated, hybrid model has a greater chance of success.

I’m not familiar with the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. The big questions for me are around how much original content they produce on a given day and the competition they face from local radio and television. The bulk of their website will remain free even for non-subscribers. Will the staff content be enough of a draw to get people to pay? We shall see, but it will be great to get some data from an increasing number of experiments so that the paid content discussion moves past some of the faith-based decision making stage.

Newspapers and Microsoft: Dysfunctional corporate cultures and the fall of empires

Steve Yelvington flagged up a comment piece on the New York Times from Dick Brass, a vice president at Microsoft from 1997 until 2004. Brass worked on Microsoft’s tablet PC efforts, something I remember covering at Comdex in 2002. Despite a huge push by Microsoft, they never became mainstream outside of a few niche applications, and Brass blames it in part from in-fighting at Microsoft. Brass wrote:

Internal competition is common at great companies. It can be wisely encouraged to force ideas to compete. The problem comes when the competition becomes uncontrolled and destructive. At Microsoft, it has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It’s not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft’s music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left.

Brass predicted that unless Microsoft was able to overcome this dysfunctional corporate culture and regained “its creative spark” that it might not have much of a future. In highlighting Brass’ piece, Steve wrote in his tweet:

Every behavior that’s killing Microsoft, I’ve seen at a newspaper company.

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Poynter asks: Are journalists giving up on newspapers?

The Poynter Institute in the US hosted an online discussion asking if journalists are giving up on newspapers after high-profile departures there including Jennifer 8. Lee, who accepted a buy out at the New York Times, and Anthony Moor, who left newspapers to become a local editor for Yahoo. Moor told the US newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher – which just announced it is ceasing publication after 125 years:

Part of this is recognition that newspapers have limited resources, they are saddled with legitimate legacy businesses that they have to focus on first. I am a digital guy and the digital world is evolving rapidly. I don’t want to have to wait for the traditional news industry to catch up.

This frustration has been there for a while with digital journalists, but many chose to stay with newspapers or sites tied to other legacy media because of resources, industry reputation and better job security. However, with the newspaper industry in turmoil, now the benefits of staying are less obvious.

Jim Brady, who was the executive editor of but is now heading up a local project in Washington DC for Allbritton Communications, said on Twitter:

A few years ago, the risk of leaping from a newspaper to a digital startup was huge. Now, the risk of staying at a newspaper is also huge.

Aside from risk, Jim echoed Moor’s comments in an interview with paidContent:

Being on the digital side is where my heart is. Secondly, I think doing something that was not associated with a legacy product was important.

In speaking with other long-time digital journalists, I hear this comment frequently. Many are yearning to see what is possible in terms of digital journalism without having to think of a legacy product – radio, TV or print. There is also the sense from some digital journalists that when print and digital newsrooms merged that it was the digital journalists and editors who lost out. In a special report on the integration of print and online newsrooms for Editor & Publisher, Joe Strupp writes:

Yet the convergence is happening. And as newsrooms combine online and print operations into single entities, power struggles are brewing among many in charge. More and more as these unifications occur, it’s the online side that’s losing authority.

It’s naive to think that these power struggles won’t happen, but they are a distraction that the industry can ill afford during this recession. In the Editor & Publisher report, Kinsey Wilson, former executive editor of USA Today and editor of its Web site from 2000-2005, said that during the convergence at USA Today and the New York Times:

We both had a period of a year or two when our capacity to innovate on the Web stopped, or was even set back a bit

Digital models are emerging that are successful. Most are focused and lean such as paidContent (although it has cut back during the recession, I’d consider its acquisition by The Guardian, my employer, as a mark of success) and expanding US political site Talking Points Memo. There are opportunities in the US for journalists who want to focus on the internet as their platform.

Back to the Poynter discussion, Kelly McBride of Poynter said during the live discussion:

I talk to a lot of journalists around the country. I don’t think they are giving up journalism at all. I do think some of them have been let down by newspapers. But a lot are holding out. They are committed to staying in newspapers as long as they can, because they are doing good work.

It’s well worth reading through the discussion. I am sure that many journalists have some of the same questions.

What was the verdict? Poynter discussion - Are journalists giving up on newspapers?

Only 5% of UK readers willing to pay for online news

As I wrote in my post from earlier today, I didn’t know if the statistics from the American Press Institute about paid content held up for the UK market. As if on cue, (owned by the folks who pay my bills at the Guardian) have commissioned a survey in the UK by Harris Interactive that track very closely with the US numbers. According to the figures from API, a 2009 Belden survey in the US found that if content was no longer available for free on a newspaper website that 68% of respondents would turn to “other local Internet sites.” The Harris survey in the UK found even worse figures: 74% would turn to another free website.

Robert Andrews at has a thorough run-down of the numbers and looks at age, demographics and geographical differences in the data. One thing that leapt out at me is that London had the highest figures for those willing to pay if their favourite news site began charging, but even in the media capital of the UK, a scant 17% would be willing to open up their pocketbooks.

Another statistic that I found interesting is that 16-24 year-olds were much more willing to pay than any other age group. It’s still not a high percentage, 13%, but it is much higher than the 1-2% of anyone over 35. Is that because younger age groups value the internet as an information source more or because they are more accustomed to paying for content online or on their mobile phones? The survey doesn’t answer these questions although it might be contained in user interviews that are not discussed in the post.

I am sure that people on both sides of the paid content debate will look at these figures and find in them data that supports their position. However, it is difficult to use these numbers to posit a case where paid content online becomes a major source or revenue that will replace the declining revenue in the traditional print business.

What’s missing from the Google/newspapers discussion

It seems to have become fashionable recently for members of the media to rail against Google, claiming that the search giant is significantly to blame for the demise of newspapers. The arguments appear to include:

  • Google is a parasite that makes money off newspapers content through aggregating it
  • Google, by acting as a middleman, deprives newspapers of control and therefore income
  • Visitors from Google are of low value because they do not stay to explore a site and therefore are not exposed to enough ads to make their visit worthwhile to the news outlet

In my opinion, these arguments are all wrong, but rather than debate them here (other people are already doing it), I’m curious to ask why two key parts of the problem are being utterly ignored.

Google enables existing behaviours
Before newspapers started publishing on the web, newspaper readers had a limited number of choices if they wanted to read what the paper had printed: read someone else’s copy, or buy and read their own. Once someone has bought a paper, the tendency is to read substantial portions of it, or even read it cover-to-cover including the bits one doesn’t really care about.

I am sure that there are psychological forces at work here, perhaps cognitive biases such as ownership bias. After all, who hasn’t felt the desire to get the most value for money out of a newspaper or magazine purchase by reading as much as one can manage, even when one has run out of any real interest?

That behaviour, and the forces that encourage it, is absent online. Instead of feeling obliged to oneself to make the most of a newspaper purchase, people are now searching for only the information that they need or want. They become promiscuous browsers, instead of dedicated readers.

Google facilitates that behaviour, a behaviour which was present before Google existed, and which will continue after Google is gone. The news outlets, however, are fixated on the idea of a dedicated reader and I’ve heard some journalists get positively indignant at the suggestion that promiscuous browsing is not just a normal behaviour, but rapidly becoming the default. They think that dedicated reading is the one true way to absorb news, and look down upon anything else.

This prejudice is damaging the news industry badly, because if your whole revenue generating mechanism, not to mention your metrics for success, is built upon the idea of people spending lots of time on your site, reading lots of articles, then your business is built on sand. Instead of working from a set of assumptions that are no longer valid, how about the news industry learns how their readers’ lives, attitudes and behaviours have changed, and uses that as a basis for developing a more robust business model. After all, people aren’t going to go back to their old habits. Ever.

Advertising innovation can be done by companies other than Google
Whilst Google News runs no adverts, news content does make its way into the general search results where advertising does very well for Google. This, for reasons unclear to me, is seen by some in the news industry as a grave assault, to be fought and destroyed.

Yet Google, alongside Craigslist, Gumtree and their brethren, are ripe for advertising disruption. The sites that were the disrupters can themselves be sideswiped, by the very sort of clever innovation that appears to be almost entirely lacking in the news industry. Why have news outlets not put together their own versions of TextAds and AdSense, allowing advertisers to buy text ads on certain topics, categories, or keywords? Can I go to a major news website and buy a keyword directly from them? Why are news organisations, who have been in the advertising game forever, relying on third party tools to spread excess ad inventory across their extended blog network? Why give away that slice of the pie to someone else?

Where is the advertising innovation? And no, annoying pop-ups, rich-media ads and irritatingly loud audio ads do not count. They are about as innovative as a slap round the face with a wet haddock – they are old school, scattershot, relying on interruption instead of relevance, and worst of all, they infuriate the visitor so much that even if the ads had been of interest, their childishness is terminally off-putting.

It feels like the news outlets have abdicated responsibility for finding new and better ways for their advertisers to buy space, time and keywords, to manage their own accounts, make their own decisions on where they want their ads to appear and manage their own budget.

It’s time for the news outlets to reclaim advertising, to learn from Google, Craigslist and Gumtree and beat them at their own game. Railing away at Google or any other site that’s eating their lunch is, however, a waste of time and a distraction that the industry can ill afford at the moment.

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, 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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