Unique content part of metered paywall success

Last year, a university journalism classmate of mine and I were talking the various plights of journalism, and he told me some advice that a business-savvy relative had given him. Roughly, it was this:

To be successful, you have to know how to create value but also how to capture value.

Basically, this means, that yes, you have to create value. Many journalists are focused on this part of the equation, the valuable service that we provide and the social value that we create. However, to be a sustainable business, we also have to know how to capture value. From that service or social value that journalists create, how do we get a return on it so that we can continue to provide the service? This is really the pressing business issue for digital content businesses, including journalism. How do we capture the value of the service that we provide? Subscriptions? Advertising? Events? Consulting? Marketing services? Most likely all of the above and more.

It’s worth interrogating the first part of that and being pretty ruthless and honest with ourselves as journalists about what value we are creating. There is a lot of redundant content out there right now, and as I said over and over in 2011, content is abundant; attention is scarce. Metered paywalls such as those at the Financial Times and the New York Times seem to be working. Is it because of the metre or the content (or a bit of both)? Adam Tinworth has a view on that:

I was involved in a significant amount of work in my final year at RBI looking at exactly what kinds of content people will pay for, through what mechanism, and how to create more of it. Uniqueness was certainly one key factor – as was the amount of business value that investment returns to the reader, which is exactly why the FT does so well.

Adam was responding to Frédéric Filloux’s most recent Monday Note looking at how both the Financial Times and the New York Times are increasing the cost of their printed product, which makes their paid digital product seem less expensive by comparison for loyal readers. Filloux also keyed in on unique content:

Of these three factors, the uniqueness of content remains the most potent one. With the inflation of aggregators and of social reading habits, the natural replication of information has turned into an overwhelming flood. Then, the production of specific content — and its protection — becomes a key element in building value.

To me unique content and a strong, active social media strategy builds audience and engagement. Note that I said an active social media strategy. The only thing that has continued to propel my career forward has been a personal active social media strategy, engaging my peers and also my audiences. This isn’t just about promoting myself or my content via social media but also connecting with people and connecting those people with information that I think they will find useful, whether I reported and wrote it or not.

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.