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Everybody has accepted that the newspaper industry is in real trouble. The debate is now what newspapers can do to survive and rebuild for the internet era we live in.

Paid content seems like one of the most immediate possible solutions for stemming declining print and advertising revenues but paid content isn't easy for a number of reasons.

Alan Mutter, who left the newspaper business in 1988 and became a technology executive in the late 1990s, authors one of the best blogs on the sad decline of the newspaper industry.

In a post yesterday, he revealed that paid content was a hot topic at the annual meeting of the Newspaper Association of America:

...participants have confirmed that significant private talks on the subject are taking place among several of the chief executives convened at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel.

The under-the-radar discussions include a sit-down among several CEOs – held quite separately from the convention under the guidance of a lawyer to ensure the talks don’t stray into inappropriate territory – that would be similar to a confab where many of the same leaders discussed the industry’s challenges in January, 2007. Despite the deterioration of the newspaper business in the intervening time, no similar session has been held since then.

According to Mutter, it's getting harder to find newspaper execs who aren't seriously looking at paid content and he concludes:

After comparing notes in San Diego, the executives may come to recognize that the number of publishers willing to charge for at least a portion of their online content is approaching sufficient critical mass that they may be able to pull it off.

This is an interesting statement. Right now, one of the biggest challenges newspapers face is that much of the news they produce is commoditized. If one newspaper charges for content, chances are some of that content will be accessible somewhere else for free. This makes is much, much tougher for newspapers to create a compelling value proposition to get consumers to pay.

But what if lots of newspapers, including the most prominent dailies and nationals, came together to form a sort of pseudo 'content cartel'? If organized effectively, they might be able to make it much more difficult for the average consumer to access paid content for free on other newspaper sites.

Maybe this is a stretch right now; so many newspapers are struggling for their own survival that it's hard to imagine they could work together in any major fashion. But I think Mutter makes a valid point: if there's a 'critical mass' of newspapers charging for content online, that could change the game.

And if newspapers get aggressive about how others use their content, that could make the paid content cartel even more powerful. Last week, Rupert Murdoch had some harsh words for Google and asked whether content producers are going to let Google "steal all our copyrights".

Whether all of this turns out to be talk and rhetoric remains to be seen but one thing is for sure: it's unlikely newspapers are going to go down without a fight and that could mean big changes for consumers as paid content becomes a more prominent part of the struggle.

Of course if enough value is provided to consumers, everybody wins. But if a pay wall cartel is erected without regard to value, everyone loses.

Photo credit: Monica's Dad via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 April, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2390 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

David Iwanow

David Iwanow, SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats.nl

The newspapers have been bleeding advertisers for years with poor tracking and no transparency, Google offers this and so does its Adwords/Adsense system. 

If the newspapers are displaying poor quality ads and we dont click on them, it that the consumers failure that we are not supporting them or their fault for filling our screens with junk.

I will have to say MSN is one of the worst offenders for over supply of ads across the network.  The quick point not being made is that many newspapers dont deserve to survive based on their reprinting other newspapers sources and stories. 

So they are not printing/writing original content just buying AP,CNN news feeds and filling their pages with ads. If newspapers move to paid only solutions that will be just one newspaper that i now longer read, once you get caught out several times with the paid subscribers only login you remember this and dont go back.

Wall Street Journal & Australian Financial Review are great examples of papers i read in print, but avoid like the plague online.

I would not be suprised if News Corp bought out twitter before Google, because as pointed out during discussions at the recent SMX Sydney conference, twitter is starting to be the source of breaking news before even Google News.

over 7 years ago

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Anthony

While I can see merit to the paid content "critical mass" argument, I suspect that it's also self-limiting.

For example, in London there is a choice of both free and paid for publications, with the (generally) higher quality papers charging, but with advertising subsidised papers such as The Metro and The London Paper flooding the market with free copies too.

over 7 years ago

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