Monday, September 14, 2009

Only 51% of pubs think pay walls will fly

A bare 51% of the newspaper publishers in the United States believe they can charge successfully for access to their interactive content, according to a survey released today. The other 49% of publishers either fear that pay walls will fail or just aren’t sure.

The survey, which was conducted for the latest in the series of industry conferences this year studyng how to monetize the valuable content most newspapers give away for free, shows that publishers who are worried about charging for content have good reason to be concerned.

While 68% of the publishers responding to the survey said they thought readers who objected to paying for content would have a difficult time replacing the information they get from newspaper websites, 52% of polled readers said it would be either “very easy” or “somewhat easy” to do so.

These findings – and the others summarized below – are contained in an exhaustive survey by industry consultants Greg Harmon and Greg Swanson. They were hired by the American Press Institute to conduct the research for an invitation-only meeting of about three dozen industry executives being held today at a hotel in suburban Washington, DC.

The research consisted of two parts. One part was a poll sent to a selection of newspaper publishers, which was completed voluntarily by 118 papers of all sizes in all parts of the country, according to Harmon. The sentiments of more than 4,000 consumers were captured separately in online surveys at several participating papers.

While the success of launching a pay solution would seem to require a fairly broad and concerted approach among not only newspapers but also other news outlets, the survey shows little common ground among even newspapers as to how to proceed.

Although 58% of publishers said they are studying the idea of charging for content, fully 49% of newspapers reported that they have no timetable in mind for when or how they might do it. Only 10% of the respondents said they now charge for any portion of their web content.

Among the papers inclined to charge in the future, their initatives are anything but synchronized. Ten percent of papers said they are charging now, 12% say they plan to do so by the end of the year, 18% say they will do it in the first quarter of 2010, 10% say they will start charging by the end of next June and 2% said they would do something next summer or later.

Potential payment schemes range all over the map. The respondents ranked the strategies most likely to be adopted as follows:

:: 38% predict their papers will tease articles on a free home page but limit access to the full stories to people who buy a monthly subscription.

:: 28% think their papers will offer both monthly subscriptions and paid access to individual articles (the latter being known as micropayments).

:: 15% expect their papers will offer a combination of monthly subscriptions, imcropayments and all-you-can-read day passes.

:: 19% believe general news will be free but that their publications will charge for specially produced premium content.

:: 12% suggest their sites will offer free access to content during a session of limited duration but then require payment from readers when the free session expires.

:: 9% foresee the adoption of a pay-as-you-go system, where the visitor cannot buy a subscription or day pass but must pay for access to each individual story she wants to consume.

A question asking publishers why they might want to charge for content produced the predictable response that 77% are seeking to “capture new revenue opportunities.” Here is the intersting twist:

While 65% of publishers said they hoped content sales would develop a stream of revenues from new products, an even large number – 71% – said their objective is “preserving print circulation.”

In another dimension of the survey, Harmon and Swanson found a sharp disparity between the stated concerns of publishers over content piracy and their lack of attention to the issue.

While 85% of publishers said they are concerned about online publishers who use their copyrighted content without permission, only 25% said they were engaged in some sort of “active tracking” to combat copyright scofflaws.

The gap between aspiration and action may close after the Associated Press launches the new digital content-monitoring system scheduled for release in November.


Anonymous Charlie said...

Ok, here's what I clearly see:

1. If newspapers charge for content, it would be like with the online porn industry: of course some people are going to pay, but the vast majority will continue to search and look for porn in the thousands of free sites (who get their contents downloading it from the pay sites with just one suscription).

2. Therefore, AP thinks this digital content-monitoring system will fix this problem. I think not, because I can still get information and publish it my way with references. If not, then Wikipedia would die immediately right? Whats then for AP then? Kill the keyboard in all computers? Kill the copy and paste?

Im a journalist and I understand why all the talk about copyrighted content, but this is not the way to solve the problem. As you can imagine, I dont have the solution neither, but I dont like this one.

3. If you are a publisher and you want to preserv the print circulation, come to my country. I live in Central America and in this countries, with barely 1 of 10 people with access to the net, its a paradise. Good newspapers keep growing. Of course, this will happen for only 5 or 6 years. We are like USA 6 years ago. When we get a lot of internet access to the public, say good bye to newspapers. Mine is still in a daily circulation of 280,000.


6:13 AM  
Anonymous andreaitis said...

ONLY 51% think pay walls will work? That number is higher than I would have expected, especially if that 51% is thinking only of a subscription model.

While it's encouraging to see the variations on free-to-fee listed in the survey results, the most shocking number is that 71% trying to preserve print circulation.

Charlie's right. They should move to a region with little-to-no internet access and live their print existence until there's digital expansion or they die, whichever comes first.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Mark Potts said...

Ten percent of the respondents said they're already charging for online content? Huh? There are only a handful of U.S. papers charging for online content right now. It's nothing like 10 percent. Makes me wonder just how "exhaustive" this survey was.

7:57 AM  
Blogger John A said...

I do not know how it will be accomplished, but some form of micro-payment is probably the only way for "MSM" to survive.

I would not mind say, two or three dollars a week for news. But that should be ALL news. I will not pay that to even the New York Times if I must also pay The London Times, the Washington Times, the Australian, Hong Kong daily news, Agence France Presse, the Daily Mail...

I read articles and editorials from perhaps a dozen sites daily, and perhaps fifty different or more every month. I can not afford to pay each two dollars per week, or even two dollars per month. Certainly not those I may only visit once a month or less.

8:14 AM  
Anonymous John Granatino said...

Hi Mark,

It's conceivable the 10% is a reference to paid archives programs, which many still have through third-party vendors. But that's just a guess.


8:18 AM  
Anonymous W.Craft said...


It's possible that the 10% is those newspapers that charge for access to online archives and see it in the same light as having a pay wall. Isn't the only difference the age of the article?

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Mark Potts said...

If archives account for the 10 percent figure--and I doubt it, since most major papers charge for their archives--then the question was worded wrong. The implication of the column is that the survey was asking about paid access to current news. I'm not aware of any (recent) controversy over paid archives.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

except for the WSJ, where else has it been successful. NY times tried it and: fail. ESPN: fail.

9:37 AM  
Blogger James Hatch said...

I found it interesting that of those polled on the internet, half thought it would be easy to replace the news. Half? And it is even more odd that half think a pay wall would work. I've written about the fact that today and in the future, the internet is akin to sitting around with friends chatting about the news. It used to be stories relayed between a few people at a coffee shop, but now we have the equivalent which is Twitter, Facebook, Blogging, and social aggregation sites like Reddit, Digg, Delicious, Technorati, etc. And couple that with the fact that it is becoming even more what I call metagraphic [Coupling psychographics, demographics, geographics, and context] and you have instant transfer of knowledge to those who want it, where it is most effective, and nearly instantaneous. A barrier that can't be overcome without slowing down technological growth.

Too long? Didn't read?
You can't stop the transfer of knowledge by putting up a pay wall in a technologically savvy society.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Jason Fry said...

I was struck by the disconnect between how much publishers value their content and how hard they think it would be to replace and how much readers value that content and how easy they think it would be to replace. Pretty big problem there.

What do you make of their contention that 86% of page views are driven by so-called core loyalists? If true, that seems to suggest that the subscription model shouldn't be dismissed so cavalierly. But I'd want to know a lot more about the methodology to be convinced.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Steve Outing said...

I wish folks would better define what they're talking about when they say "pay wall" in terms of newspaper sites. IMHO, no publisher is his/her right mind would put all site content behind a pay wall (or take the teaser approach but require pay for full version of anything). But a "pay wall" could be used for, say, the 5% of premium content that the publisher decides is unique enough to charge for.

But the biggest problem is that many traditional newspapers have cut back so much on editorial staff, I can't figure out where they're going to get this 5% of "premium" content.

Reading through this morning's API chat was depressing. But then, it was a mostly newspaper crowd, apparently; I didn't see much evidence of outsiders. It was like reading an industry chat from 5 or probably more years ago.

When the newspaper industry gets together without enough outsiders there to bring in new ideas, it seems that the ideas that get played up are same old, same old.

And what exactly is the point of surveying newspapers on their plans for paid content? How about instead surveying MBA students and their faculty who are actively researching media business models of the future? That might actually give us some information that's worth acting on.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I won't pay for facts. I won't pay for generic or obvious analysis. Both can be had at scads of places for the "fee" of looking at ads.

I will pay a small amount for opinions, commentary, or analysis but only if 1) it's good and 2) the person selling it doesn't come across as greedy or exclusive. If it's not good I won't pay, if it's good but the newspaper treats it as strongly proprietary I will boycott it on principle.

In other words, if you want me to pay, come up with good, original opinion and analysis, and don't be a whiner when other people copy your content for non-commercial, attributed uses. Oh, and don't charge more than a small amount.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Vin Crosbie said...

No news here.

The funny thing about polling publishers' opinions is that it is not only like polling the very executives whose lacks of vision put the industry into its current predicament but it is, well, hey, absolutely that very thing.

Publishers aren't scientific instruments whose opinions register objective truths. What they believe or think or desire is hardly an indication of what will or won't work.

Indeed, look at their track records. They are the very executives who created the problem they're now claiming that they can solve with the same skills. If someone's lack of a sense of direction badly misnavigates you, do you trust their directions again? They are culpable, not indicative.

The publishers jumping aboard endeavors to charge for online content are like farmers who've failed to see their environment change and are now grasping for divining rods.

And they'll be about as successful. The potential success or failure of charging for news content online is based upon the economics of supply & demand involving all sources of news online, not just newspapers. Its success or failure won't depend upon what publishers want or think or desire.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Henry E Scott said...

Re Charlie's comment: I like my news pretty immediate, so waiting for a Wikipedia entry doesn't make much sense. And given some of the notorious Wikipedia screwups (the allegation in John Siegenthaler's wiki bio that he was involved in the assassination of his friend John Kennedy, for example) I take what I read on Wikipedia, and the web generally, with so many grains of salt that I now have blood pressure problems.

I think Mark's comment about the 10 percent figure is interesting and suggests there may be flaws in the way this survey was conducted or structured.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does the study break down the data by size of paper and/or frequency? I ask because smaller weeklies in certain areas of the country might have a better chance than large dailies of going to a paid format, if they are the only news organization in their area.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Dhyana said...

Readers don't have to replace the newspaper's content. They can just go without. Most of their neighbors do.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Walter Dnes said...

> While 68% of the publishers responding to
> the survey said they thought readers
> who objected to paying for content would
> have a difficult time replacing the
> information they get from newspaper websites

What planet are they living on? Internet news webpages consist of more than just newspaper-only sites. Think ABC.COM, BBC.CO.UK, CBC.CA, CNN.COM, and a host of others.

Want sports in depth? Howsabout MLB.COM, NBA.COM, NFL.COM, NHL.COM, etc, etc.

Real-estate (homes for sale)? Try MLS.CA (I assume something similar exists in the US)

Jobs? MONSTER.COM and a host of others.

General classifieds? Craigslist and Kijiji and Redtagdeals, etc.

Store flyers and coupons?
FLYERLAND.CA (I assume that geotargeting prevents me from seeing the US site).

> 71% – said their objective
> is “preserving print circulation.”

Sorry, the economics behind "dead tree newspapers" suck to the max
* pay union scale wages to loggers
* pay union scale wages to truckers to drive expensive trucks burning expensive fuel to deliver the logs to the nearest pulp and paper mill
* pay union scale wages to pulp and paper workers
* pay union scale wages to truckers to drive expensive trucks burning expensive fuel to deliver the paper to the newspaper printing plants
* pay union scale wages to printers, etc
* pay union scale wages to truckers to drive expensive trucks burning expensive fuel to deliver the papers to individual subscribers

Dead tree newspapers are where the horse-and-carriage were 100 years ago. They are being superceded as I speak/write.

For paywalls to work, you need unique content, analysis, editorials, etc, that go beyond what you can find in in regugitated API newsfeed articles. The Wall Street Journal, and some exclusive "investor newsletters" can charge money because their readers can profit from their information. The Economist is another site with a good reputation. What unique stuff can you get from you average big-city paper that has slashed reporters/editors/columnists for the past 10 years?

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The commenters above -- Steve Outing and Vin -- tell it like it is.

2:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think the success or failure of pay walls, like most business models, depends on individual markets. For instance, much of the commentary on this site deals with being able to replace content from other sources.

As the editor of a small town newspaper, I can assure you that CNN cares not a whit about our city council, that ESPN has never heard of our local high school football teams.

We are blessed with a local radio station, which has cut back to one part-time person reading the news -- generally from our paper post-publication. I would agree that in larger markets the potential for replacement from other sources is greater.

As for the universal chat room, we have them here from other sites. What they lack is credibility, and credibility is our stock in trade.

I am not surprised that 51% of the publishers are wary of charging for their product (news) even as their revenues plummet. After all, these are the people who decided -- incredibly -- that they can successfully charge for something they also offer for free.

Imagine where Wal-Mart would be if you paid full price -- low, low, low though it may be -- for the privilege of standing in a checkout line, but offered their full line free on-line.

To borrow from the greatest comic strip ever, the newspaper business has met the enemy and it is the newspaper business.

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

One other thing which I don't think has been explicitly addressed here: Newspapers suck at marketing.

And that's not just marketing in the colloquial sense favored throughout the industry (i.e., pushing papers out the door), but also marketing at its most basic -- developing products that satisfy consumer needs, priced commensurate with their value to consumers, and in a form (location, time, etc.) that consumers want. As Jason implies, publishers value their products a lot more than consumers do.

When more marketing acumen goes into the evolution of Charmin than the typical daily, it's no wonder that our business stinks (pun fully intended).

12:14 PM  
Blogger nick said...

pay walls be end of newspaper industry

1:44 PM  
Blogger Stan Spire said...

Will paid content mean the return of proofreading?

This post had a couple of misspellings - "studyng" in the second paragraph and "initatives" in the eighth. OK, no charge to read it. I can let it pass in this case, especially when this blog only has a staff of one.

But the local paper in both its print and digital editions let's such mistakes slide by, even though any spellchecker program would catch them in a second. Too lazy to use spellchecker? Maybe they're too lazy with other details. I don't pay for sloppiness.

If they expect me to pay, then they should reinstate the copyeditor. Or at least make their reporters use a spellchecker.

BTW, this post was composed in Word to catch any unintended misspellings.

Stan Spire

2:17 AM  
Blogger palmer said...

Just paged through our Tuesday paper (100k Sun circ). 42 pages with 14 local stories. 6 of those stories were carried on a local television website. The other 8 stories report 217 total reads on the website. The AP stories were old news and available through thousands of Internet sites.

I do not see a value justification here to start charging for content.

7:15 AM  

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