Sunday, January 23, 2005

Rue the mugging of morgue readers

It is oddly strange and strangely irritating that many newspapers charge for searching their online archives. Let's review the facts, as painfully obvious as they may be:

Fact 1: Which current events are the most interesting to the most people most of the time? Duh! The latest events. That's why we call it "news," isn't it?

Fact 2: Which current events ordinarily are closest to heart, hearth and pocketbook? Double duh!! Local events.

Fact 3: What is the single most valuable and proprietary product of a local newspaper? Triple duh with a cherry on top!!! The latest local news.

Therefore, one may fairly conclude that the biggest opportunity for monetizing online newspaper content ought to be charging for the freshest local news. Contrary to this seemingly impeccable logic, however, most newspapers give away the news for free on the web, but then charge a nuisance fee for fishing an old article out of their electronic morgue.

For the uninitiated, "morgue" is what we called the place where old, yellowing clippings were filed in little envelopes for future reference. They have been replaced by vastly superior searchable online digitized multimedia databases. But old clips, which serendipitously contained interesting info-bits on their flip side, really were more fun to read. End of modest digression.

Charging $2 for a digital link to a soup recipe or the picture of the Kiwanis car wash really makes people mad. No one likes being nickel and dimed, and newspapers battling declining circulation need all the friends they can get.

The big newspapers got into the business of charging for clips when they licensed access to their archives to large database research companies like Lexis-Nexis. Under these contracts, papers are required to charge something for the use of their archives.

For the biggest newspapers, the aggregate licensing revenues may seem to outweigh the irritation caused the occasional users clipped $2 to look up an article. Smaller papers following the lead of the big guys have less of an argument for charging for clips, because their licensing sales are not that material. For papers large and small, a kindler, gentler approach would be to allow registered site visitors three or six free peeks a month before they have to pay for the use of the archives.

Most people have little personal interaction with the newspaper, except for a limited number of out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Some are delightful, like having your kid's picture on the front page. Others are painful, like turning in your aunt's obituary or being exposed as a parking-ticket scofflaw. Newspapers can't bring back Aunt Ida or pay your parking tickets, but they can remain valued and respected neighbors by serving their readers with grace and compassion.

In those rare, often emotional, moments when readers interact with a newspaper, they form a strong and lasting impression of the people and the institution. For a business that depends so much on goodwill and public confidence, it makes no sense to ding readers for a lousy $2 when they only want to know the heft of last year's prize pumpkin.

Newspapers need to quit the clip job.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shhhh! Don't tell them that!

I believe that newspapers giving free content online represents their attempt to make the advertising revenue model work, as it does for print versions. The cost of newspaper publishing is hardly covered by the newstand price.

In the case of the archives, the execs aren't thinking about nickel-and-diming Aunt Elly for that casserole recipe. They're focused on collecting from professional and institutional subscribers who are involved in research. Students, lawyers, business execs--these are the targeted customers. For the newspaper, it's found money for a product that has already been produced and paid for.

The real danger for newspapers is that free current news online can and will erode subscription and newsstand sales. There aren't enough businesses and libraries to make up the losses. But charging for the current edition online holds the risk of driving readers away altogether. There's just too much competition online. AP wire stories are the standard for every big portal-type site. And frankly, given the declines in reportorial and editorial quality, independence, seriousness and diligence of most newspapers, it's no wonder that many people don't want to pay for gussied-up wire stories and White House press releases.


10:56 PM  

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