I may advocate free web news, but let’s not be dogmatic

By Steve Outing

I’m on record as being opposed to charging for generic news content (including locally reported stories) on newspaper websites. I covered that in my last Editor & Publisher Online column, where I also outlined an alternative strategy to supplement weak online ad revenues. I also liked Steve Buttry’s “Seven reasons charging for content won’t work,” which nicely lays out the principal arguments against the paid-web-content strategy that seems to be shaping up. Evidence: last week’s quasi-secret newspaper CEOs’ meeting where paid online news was discussed; and MediaNews Group‘s web strategy shift as documented in a recent interview with CEO Dean Singleton in which he states:

“We’re going to move away from giving away our news content online for free — give a small amount of it away, and then air that out with reader-generated copy, with user-generated copy, with listings and other things online. We’re planning to make our online offerings much different than our print offerings.”

I’ll stick with my view that a MNG-type approach will fail, and Buttry’s seven reasons explain why. (An addition from me: In an era when people expect news to reach them in many ways, in many formats, and on many devices, it’s anachronistic to return to publishing news on one medium primarily and handicapping distribution on digital media forms, like the web, where different rules apply.)

But that’s not to say that I’m dogmatic on the idea of newspapers (or other types of news entities, for that matter) charging for web content. I think that there’s a line that needs to be set that’s optimal, and Singleton’s suggestion that most of his newspapers’ news content will go behind the must-pay-for wall is over the line and an impending disaster for his company.

(On the “positive” side, at least his newspapers will be the guinea pigs that prove whether charging for general local news on the web is possibly a workable strategy. Other newspaper publishers can watch and learn. I expect MediaNews Group will quickly learn it’s not working, and switch to another model, probably pioneered by someone else.)

The way for newspapers to charge for content is not rocket science. They must create new types of high-value, probably niche, content, communities, and/or services that are unique enough that people will be willing to pay for them. That’s tricky when your newspaper has laid off a big chunk of its editorial staff. But if it’s shedded stuff that others do better on the web — no more local movie critic, TV editor, books editor, etc. — then perhaps there can be room to rethink what a “newspaper” is about and start creating new content and services that break out of the newspaper box.

Newspapers have already lost many of the things they used to do to national web players that do a better job and can serve local audiences. The discussion now should be on what new things a newsroom full of journalists can do that are outside what we’ve known and valuable enough to get people to pull out their credit cards.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!