they won’t pay: online content

I found an article by Joshua Benton from last year called “If They Won’t Pay for Facebook, They Won’t Pay for Your City Hall Reporter” which brings up a good point about substitute goods and free media: people nowadays want online media and social networking for free because they believe that if one thing dies, another will simply pop up in its place since the tech field is so crowded and booming. He then hones in on news in the comments section and points out that these substitutions are not necessarily paid news for free news. For most people, it is more like paid news for free time-killer:

Is the issue whether someone can produce Toledo city council coverage at a lower price than you can? Or is the appropriate substitute good “something that can fill a Toledoan’s time and attention for five minutes or so”? A lot of reporters tend to argue the former; I think for the most part it’s the latter. Most people have always viewed stories about Toledo city council as something entertaining or interesting to fill a slot of their time. That slot can now be filled with a gazillion other things, for free, online.

I think the number of people who really, really care about Toledo city council is a small fraction of the total audience. What, maybe 5%, tops? Which is why I think if news orgs are going to charge for things online, they can only do so through targeted products or services that go after the small fraction of their audience who actually care about the news qua news.

One commenter points out that people are unwilling to begin paying for what used to be free, which means that all those print publications who put free content online in the early days as a way to draw more readers to the print editions are now regretting it since their readers resist a pay model. (See The Newsweekly’s Last Stand, about how the Economist is thriving in print precisely because they had a lackluster web strategy.)

Another salient comment: “Newspapers should figure out what people are willing to pay for, rather than trying to force people to pay for content that they clearly don’t value.” There was a similar point made at the recent Aurora Forum panel talk about documentary photography and social change. A woman asked the panelists – David Cohen (author of What Matters), documentary photographer Ed Kashi and professor Michael Watts – about their opinion on a NY Times piece on business strategies used by advertisers vs non-profit social change groups. The implication was that businesses were much better at getting people to act (buy) than non-profits are at getting people to act (donate, volunteer).

Cohen responded that in fact his books have been on the Times best-seller list so there’s plenty of business acumen behind these projects, and furthermore, it isn’t a fair comparison since it’s inherently easier to get people to want and buy, say, big screen TVs than it is to get them to help other people in distant countries. (I was hoping someone would point out that this is a pathetic result of our social values which we shouldn’t abide.) I get the sense that a lot of people involved in social change take no small amount of pride in doing things for moral right and hesitate to taint their cause by taking a page out of the advertising playbook, but Cohen’s individual success aside (I think he took the criticism a bit personally), it would be beneficial for more non-profits to think seriously about how to package their missions in a way that isn’t as manipulative as advertising but holds out something for concrete to targeted masses than simply “do good for the moral right of it” in a world where most people obviously are not most motivated to act by that alone.

For example, can more activist groups adopt the Obama campaign web strategy of asking for specific small one-off amounts online rather than the classic “pay $20 for yearly membership” or “pay $50 to reach ‘patron’ status”? According to David Pogue, the “App Store Effect” equals more profit despite a lower price:

If you cut a software program’s price in half, you sell far more than twice as many copies. If you cut it to one-tenth, you sell far more than 10 times as many. And so on. iPhone/iPod Touch fans downloaded 1 billion apps within 9 months. Some iPhone programmers have become millionaires within months–yes, selling $1 software–because of this crazy math. $20 may sound like more than $1, but not when 1,000 times more people buy at $1.

I don’t think it’s out of line to think along these lines. I suppose that’s why social entrepreneurship (microloans is just one example) has gained some momentum in recent years.

One last thought – news/print media seems to be very business-minded is when it comes to cooperation. As I’ve mentioned before, I attended a panel discussion on journalism back in May. During the Q&A, an audience member asked if ganging together was a way forward, if it wouldn’t be better for all publications to pool resources, share information and link to each other. In other words, some sort of journalism collective instead of separate entities fighting to drive each other out of business and really driving everyone out of business.

The panelists insisted that they were already linking to each other and didn’t say much more than that. I don’t think they understood the sense of collaboration that the audience member probably meant – not just superficial linking to drive traffic, but a deeper operation-based collective. Each newspaper or magazine has a limited budget that might not be enough to finance very many original investigative pieces, but for issues where they both have an interest in breaking a story, instead of both parties working on the same thing, stories getting killed, and each trying to outdo the other, they could print investigative pieces as a joint venture. A piece brought out jointly by the Times and the WSJ (maybe that’s an unfortunately grouping) certainly sounds impressive to me. Each publication could still retain independent daily reporting duties and opinion pages, but there must be content that bridges ideological divides.

I don’t know the ins and outs of reporting, but common sense dictates that if you’re on a sinking ship, it’s better to put your heads together and build a raft than to cling to your own little pieces of flotsam, none of which are sufficient to keep anybody afloat. There are more choices these days about how we present information, we need to get better at finding the proper avenue for any given piece of info without slaughtering each other.

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~ by Jin on July 16, 2009.

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