Thursday, February 7, 2008

There's No Ties Like Monetized

In a comment on a previous post (I know there must be an easier way to do this than cut and paste), my old pal Clay McCuistion writes:

"If we have traditionally counted on advertisers to pay our way in the print media, it means we're not prepared to make much of a case to consumers that they need to pay up. Instead, we're prepared to offer them three months for $3, or whatever the latest circulation discount is. The result: I think consumers have come to expect free information. The question -- how is that monetized? Can it be?"

The point often is made that people are prepared to pay $3 and change per day for coffee at Starbucks, yet they are not willing to pay 50 cents (whoops, we just raised the price to 75!) for page after page of information that vitally affects their lives. This usually is accompanied by a jeremiad concerning the vapid priorities of the reading public.

Part of my job is to handle calls from readers who have "a question or comment" about our news coverage. Recently my paper largely eliminated daily stock agate, with predictable results. One questioner-and-commenter noted that the only things he bought the paper for were the stock agate, the Cryptoquote and the sports results.

Well, you must read other things in the paper, said I. Yes, I do, he said; but I don't buy the paper to read them. I buy the paper for the stock agate, the Cryptoquote and the sports results. And this was a gentleman of the old school, the "I don't have a computer at home" class. Were he of the new school, he would have left us years ago, I suspect, except for our secret weapon, the Cryptoquote.

Leaving aside the sort of overstatement-for-effect that often occurs when readers call ... he is willing to pay the newspaper for something. He's willing to pay it for information he knows in advance that he wants and for a pleasurable activity. He's not willing to pay it to find out that Mitt Romney folded his tent; he doesn't have a computer, but he can turn on the TV or listen to KYW Newsradio. He's not willing to pay it to find out that there's a wonderfully written article on B1 that he's interested in; maybe there'll be one today, maybe there won't. But there will be sports scores every day.

So if the answer is just "journalism," he'll read it, but he's not willing to pay for it; and as we're learning, it's going to take a heck of a lot of online advertisers to support a news operation. A heck of a lot more than we have or are likely to.

The recent biography of Charles M. Schulz, in noting the success of Peanuts, makes clear that in its heyday Peanuts was such a draw that people would buy the newspaper just to read Peanuts. OK, it was three cents a day then, but a cup of coffee was, 15?

Yes, journalism has always been, if not free, at least heavily subsidized; and newspapers always used other things to assemble an audience that was willing to buy a ticket at the door to see the show, during which you got the edifying lecture that we call journalism. Some people even bought the ticket mainly for the edifying lecture. We really like those people.

But you still had to buy a ticket. And the purchase price of the ticket isn't the point; it's how to make the whole show economically feasible. By itself, the edifying lecture, topic largely to be revealed once you're inside, never really was.

"How can it be monetized? Can it be?"

As "journalism," probably not. As a "product," probably.

1 comment:

Clay said...

First off, my apologies for even considering (much less using) the word "monetized."

Secondly, I don't know how we resolve this. A decision has been made by most newspapers that content should be free online. Most places that have tried to charge have dropped the attempt. (Begin folksy colloquialism) Has the horse already left the barn? (End folksy colloquialism.)

And the challenges are different in each market. The New York Times has a great website -- but not every metro newspaper can muster the resources to produce a competitor. So what do papers like Philly or Baltimore, etc., do?

Smaller local papers have an edge in that small communities perceive real value in hometown news. But how do they shift scarce resources to keep providing that news in a profitable way online?