Everyone knows newspapers are in trouble. The business model based on advertising revenues that served them well for decades no longer works in a world where people can get their news online for free and audiences are fragmented like never before.
What’s a newspaper to do?
Well, one thing is to try and force people to subscribe to online editions, as Rupert Murdoch would like, by not letting content loose for free, not even in your Google news feed. That’s one model, and it seems to work for The Wall Street Journal. Whether it will work for Murdoch’s other newspaper properties is another question.
But a better model might be to be more like iTunes. I can’t imagine that someone hasn’t already thought of an iTunes-like model for newspaper content before, but I haven’t seen one. If you know of one, please leave a comment.
Here’s what I imagine. Each day I receive a digital copy of, say, The New York Times. It’s organized as I remember seeing it on the Kindle. (I don’t have a Kindle – yet.) There’s an initial page that lists the sections of the newspaper. By clicking on a section, I then get a list of the article headlines, perhaps with the first one or two sentences of the article itself. If I decide I want to read it, I click on it and a charge is automatically deducted from my New York Times online account. I might also subscribe to one or more sections, if I wish, rather than the whole paper. Or even to specific topics, or a particular columnist or reporter.
Simple. I click and pay only for the content I read. For the stuff I don’t read, I don’t pay.
How much would The Times charge per article? 25 cents? 10 cents? 2 cents? (That would certainly give new meaning to “getting my 2 cents worth”!) It’s hard to say. They would probably have to experiment with different price points to see where the sweet spot is – where they get the greatest volume of click-through’s from the greatest number of readers. But I could imagine that when people only pay for the parts of The Times they want to read, and the price threshold for that is fairly low, “pay per article” could potentially generate volume and revenues exceeding an online subscription model. iTunes certainly made a killing, one 99-cent download at a time.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually still love newspapers. I’m old fashioned. I enjoy getting the whole paper, touching the actual paper, leafing through it on my sofa, discovering stories of interest that I would have missed if I preselected the content through an RSS feed. And I also want to know that my news provider is trustworthy, which means it has an organization in place that upholds certain journalistic standards, checks facts, investigates stories. That costs money and requires a healthy revenue stream.
iTunes freed people from shelling out the money for a whole CD when all they really wanted to hear were one or two songs. And made lots of money. So maybe being like iTunes is a way for newspapers to generate the revenue that maintains quality, depth and breadth of content, in a world where more and more people want to pick, choose and pay only for the part of that content that’s relevant to them. All I have to do is give up the paper. But since I also love trees, that isn’t a bad thing either.