Yet another rebuttal to Carr’s iTunes-for-news notion

By Steve Outing

Plenty of people have commented on David Carr’s piece in the New York Times, “Let’s Make an iTunes Model for News.” I’ll try not to repeat arguments already well made by others. (Rich Gordon has done a nice job refuting Carr’s ideas on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits; also see Mathew Ingram’s trashing of Carr’s idea.)

Carr’s idea that news organizations can suddenly start charging for news is a non-starter. News companies experimenting online have tried and failed many times, going all the way back to the mid 1990s. The reason is simple enough: There’s too much other free news content online to substitute for what you’re trying to sell, unless it’s really, truly unique and a rather thin vertical topic slice. Newspaper content? No way.

The argument that the news industry could collude and all agree to start charging is unworkable and impractical. If I’m in a 2-newspaper market and my competitor starts to charge for access to content, fantastic! I can stay free and eat their lunch in terms of audience and grow a digital service unbothered by a direct competitor that represents a threat.

For a 1-newspaper town, charging for website access opens you up to new competitors, both entrepreneurs and existing media companies. There are lots of laid-off journalists out there right now, and they won’t all go into PR; some will band together to create alternatives (successors) to the newspaper. The local newspaper charging for access plays right into their hands.

Other competitors to sole newspapers will be other media companies who will smell opportunity if you wall off your news. TheBatavian.com is an example of what you’ll see: Gatehouse Media entered Batavia, New York, with a digital-only news service, sensing an opportunity to go up against the local newspaper, which had been fairly clueless online, with a low-cost and free digital local news service.

So go ahead, charge for your news content. Your newspaper will be out of business that much faster and you’ll have more time to refine your golf swing.

What can you charge for? SERVICE, not content, in general. I’d focus your what-can-we-charge-for to adding convenience to the consumer. Several newspapers charge monthly subscription fees to read their Kindle e-reader editions. (Though I think the pricing is too high, and when e-readers like the Kindle are more mainstream, a much lower price point — or bundling of news brands for a set monthly fee — will gain more subscribers and make more money.) Others charge for PDF or digital-replica editions; I’m no fan of them, but some people are willing to pay for the old newspaper format rather than go to the paper’s free website or use RSS feeds or e-mail newsletters.

Especially as smartphones become ubiquitous in the next year or two, I suspect that news organizations may find that they can package services that people will pay for. Personalized news is especially promising for charging, but such services need to be better than what online users can get for free from Google and others. Mobile alerts of news and events within a few blocks of your house, for example, might be a service worth paying for. Ditto for the personalized mobile news service that incorporates into your personal news feed what I call “micro-personal” news from people within your personal social networks.

The “let’s charge for content” argument keeps rearing its head, but get over it. Let’s focus instead on “let’s charge for services” that are valuable enough to the news consumer that he or she is willing to part with some money.