Think Beyond Paying for News Content

Last week, fellow Tidbits contributor Maurreen Skowran offered some analysis of a recent NYTimes.com essay package, Battle Plans for Newspapers. She explored the debate in the comments there over whether charging for news content is a good idea.

Personally, I think it’s extremely difficult (maybe impossible) for newspapers to charge for niche content online, no matter how good it is. NYTimes.com tried this with Times Select and discovered they could generate more revenue by publishing the content for free and running ads on it.

This fits in with the popular online wisdom: Information wants to be free. That phrase was coined by Stewart Brand (author, editor, and creator of The Whole Earth Catalog). In this Wikipedia entry, he’s quoted as saying:

On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

That statement is now more than 20 years old — and by now, I think “free” has won this battle.

On a related note, I see many similarities between the music industry and the newspaper industry. Both have tried desperately to cling to old business models as their ships slowly sink. Many newspapers are still afraid to link to external sites from within stories — fearing they might lose traffic. (This is strange, considering the largest properties on the Internet are in the business of sending people away from their own sites — i.e. Google, Yahoo, and Digg.)

Instead, I think newspapers should syndicate and share their content (photos, stories, videos, reviews, etc.) — just like YouTube syndicates videos across millions of sites, iPhones, Kindles, and BlackBerries. Most newspapers have done a terrible job of gaining audiences this way. Advertising revenue would be much easier to capture if newspapers had bigger audiences through syndication.

I find it fascinating that more and more writers, musicians, programmers and filmmakers are giving away their work for free online. Back in 2006, Forbes published a seminal article on this strategy by award-winning science fiction writer Cory Doctorow (who has been giving away novels online for years and making money from it).

What probably won’t succeed? News business models that involve directly selling news content online. That model looks dead; let’s move forward. The Web is flooded with a lot of free content. If you charge for your content, the majority of your readers will find the next best free alternative.

I’d like to see the news industry be more creative than that. For instance, we could start building and selling iPhone apps and other mobile applications. We could start creating compelling video content and selling commercials. We could spread our content far and wide through as many syndication channels as possible. And we need to consolidate technical resources.

In short: Let’s start fishing in lots of different ponds.

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