17 September 2009

Perspectives on the Great Pay Debate

As newspapers scramble to decide how best to increase revenue online, editors are desperately trying to figure out what content to charge for, while still keeping print viable and their Web numbers up.

In a special report published this week, U.S. newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher summarizes the current thinking among American newsroom leaders.

Most of those interviewed by reporter Joe Strupp said no decisions have been made. But they said they welcomed a paid approach to online, noting that readers seem to be willing to pay for Web content that is useful, exclusive and/or in-depth.

However, the definition of marketable content varies. Some editors believe everything is chargeable. Others point at sports, or find blogs and analysis the most sellable.

"The model that most think is worthwhile is a hybrid of free and paid," says Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and co-founder of Journalism Online, which is helping newspapers transition to paid content. "For most, the vast majority would continue to access online without a payment. But the challenge is finding what you would charge for."

Few editors disclosed any specific plans, but most cited "news you can't get anywhere else" as the elusive element they'd place behind a pay wall. That includes local sports, community news, exclusives, breaking news, and investigative projects. Others said Web-only staples such as blogs, pages of data, documents and statistics, and video are also key.

Other dismiss the whole idea of charging for the web as "delusional," such as Tampa Tribune Editor Janet Coats: "People have lost their minds. They need to have a cold cloth on their heads and go lay down for a while."

For Coats, a more aggressive approach to getting online ad revenue is the answer. "We have spent 15 years in this industry getting newsrooms to change," she said. "By God, they have changed. How much have things changed on the ad side?"

The E&P article offers extensive quotes and other ideas from editors of U.S. papers large and small.

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