Should News Be Free?

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With all of the talk about the future of newspapers and journalism, comes a bigger question… should news be free?

If you’ve been following along at home, there has been all kinds of action in the news media space. Most recently, Google came out with a very interesting Blog post titled, Working with News Publishers, from their European Public Policy Blog. Many news outlets have a hard time understanding the power of Google. On one hand, these news outlets love the traffic that Google’s search drives to their website, on the other hand, they worry that Google is keeping people away by showing different search results or revealing too much of the content from the source website. Google responds:

"Today, more than 25,000 news organizations across the globe make their content available in Google News and other web search engines. They do so because they want their work to be found and read – Google delivers more than a billion consumer visits to newspaper web sites each month. These visits offer the publishers a business opportunity, the chance to hook a reader with compelling content, to make money with advertisements or to offer online subscriptions. If at any point a web publisher feels as though we’re not delivering value to them and wants us to stop indexing their content, they’re able to do so quickly and effectively."

Can’t have your cake and eat it to. The choice from Google is, "you either let us index your content and let it become more findable or make yourself invisible to our search engine with some very simple code."

Will people pay for their news? That’s the bigger questions that news media outlets are asking. One of the most engaging essay pieces on the topic can be read here: Build the Wall. The piece appears on the Columbia Journalism Review and was written by TV producer David Simon (who created the The Wire and is currently working on a new show for HBO titled Treme), a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun. It’s a long read with some very thoughtful comments. Simon thinks news outlets need to start charging for their content right now:

"Content matters. And you must find a way, in the brave new world of digitization, to make people pay for that content. If you do this, you still have a product and there is still an industry, a calling, and a career known as professional journalism. If you do not find a way to make people pay for your product, then you are–if you choose to remain in this line of work–delusional.

I know that content wants to be free on the Internet. I know that the horse was long ago shown the barn door and that, belatedly, the idea of creating a new revenue stream from online subscriptions seems daunting and dangerous. I know that commentary–the froth and foam of print journalism–sells itself cheaply and well on thousands of blogs. I know that the relationships between newspapers and online aggregators–not to mention The Associated Press and Reuters–will have to be revisited and revised. True, all true."

Does content really want to be free on the Internet? Will people start paying for the news online?


  1. My view on this is very simplistic – people will pay where they perceive value. Are there enough people who would perceive this to be of value that they would pay? If so, for how long? There is a generation that is growing up without the concept of newspapers as a source of information. Even if you could convince enough baby boomers and Gen X to pay for news online; is there even a market behind them? If not, how would you begin to build it?
    In the customer centric world, we are all willing to pay for what we as individuals value. News service providers can choose to put a price on their service – I count myself among those who wouldn’t see value.

  2. Have you read this post? It explains a lot about why old media is having such a hard time with things.
    As far as whether or not news should be free, I think it’s beside the point.
    News already is free. The “old” pay model is changing dramatically. It’s no longer about information, it’s about attention. The old model said “You should pay us for the information we’re providing you.” The new model says “Here’s something you should really know about. And if you’re interested in this piece of news, you might also be the kind of person who is interested in…”
    You get someone’s attention, then their trust, then you try to market to them.
    Before, attention was about some guy standing in a grocery store or on a college campus (because if they could get you in college, they had you for life) trying to get you to sign up for the weekend edition. Now, the only way they get you to sign up is by telling you about the coupons that come for free in the weekend edition.
    The new model is about attention.
    Those who gain the most attention have the most power.
    Here’s the thing about news. It’s around us, and nearly instant. It happens the moment someone twitters about a new YouTube video just uploaded from the streets of Iran.
    The question old media should be asking (actually the question many should have been asking for the last 10 years) is how to take part in the space that’s been created, not how to take advantage of the space that’s been created to bring people to the old model.
    It’s a difficult challenge, and as you’ve pointed out, some companies have navigated it successfully while many most definitely have not.
    News is free. News will become more and more free as more and more people learn how to upload videos and pictures, and are given all the incentives (attention focused on them) to do so.
    The old guard that’s still around must adapt to that fact VERY quickly, or they will find their end not with a huge bang, but with a tiny whimper as they fade into the background of noise that exists around us all the time now.

  3. There is too much competition in news to make it chargable. If the New York Times wants to charge, then readers can go for free to the La Times or CNN.
    Is professional joumalism a public good? Should we tax readership and redistribute the earnings to accredited professional journalists.

  4. I think the bigger picture is how you financially support the creation of content. Everyone likes reading insightful articles in the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, etc. but how does this great content continue to be created without compensating the people writing it.
    While this may comes across as against-the-grain, I believe newspapers need to start charging for online access in some way, shape or form. It may be certain sections or it may be access to VIP areas, etc. But I think the current economic model – everything is free – unsustainable.

  5. The notion that “competition” makes news want to be free, as Richard and others have argued, makes no sense. Sure, for the handful of truly major public stories a day, everyone has fairly ready access to the information and could do at least a passable job of passing the information along. But the vast majority of news in newspapers, magazines, and other traditional media is unique, at least to a degree.
    Pull up the popular technology news aggregator TechMeme, for instance. On any given day, the vast majority of what gets featured there is original. Do other people cover the same things on the same day? Sure. But in many cases the reporting is based on an original scoop and the commentary builds on other opinion and news pieces. In most cases, however, you can trace the stories back to a single journalistic point of origin.
    Unfortunately, many in social media confuse the vast majority of blog content — which is opinion — with being actual news. News reporting is still something done primarily by the major professional media sources. It is expensive and must be effectively monetized to continue to exist.

  6. Personally, I would tend to agree with Karen and Chip that what makes a newspaper interesting to read, is the uniqueness of the information. I think the newspaper market will involve in two stages, the first stage being a transition to the second one:
    Stage 1: What I first think would happen is a tendency towards the free. That’s where we are in right now.
    Stage 2: Thereafter, many newspapers will go bankruptcy and we will end up with fewer players (locally and internationally) that will charge for their unique way of transmitting their knowledge. The future of newspapers is then not about making it free, but about making it unique in exchange for a certain amount of money.

  7. I agree with Karen. It doesn’t matter if news SHOULD be free. What matters is will people pay for it. The answer, i think, is no. Mainly because news from professional journalist isn’t valued as much as it was in the past. We value our own opinions and the opinions of our friends more. This reduces the need for journalist down to merely stating the event and providing photos and/or videos of the occurrence. Someday, we won’t even need journalist for that.

  8. Newspapers are sitting on a gold mine of content. They just haven’t figured out how to monetize the content.
    They need to evolve into “social news organizations” that build communities around their content. Just imagine if newspapers started (1) approaching readers as users so that they could (2) offer them cross platform interaction through APIs and (3) collect behavioral data, and then (4) replace their ad-sales departments with a comprehensive marketing agencies that can (5) help them mine that user database, and then (6) diversify their ad offerings so that (7) they can use that user-data to target the appropriate advertisers instead of the other way around.
    If they could then extend that to mobile users and offer geo-targeted ads through location based services (LBS) technology to show mobile subscribers ads that are relevant to their current location. For example, a mom & pop restaurant could reach out to a mobile user who is not from that neighborhood, but happens to be in it.
    A gold mine, I tell you. They just need to shop around for the right technology to mine it.

  9. Good; Fast; and Cheap. Pick two, abandon all hope for the third.
    Want it good and fast? You get to pay for it. This iswhere the existing media is right now – the faster people want it and the more quality they demand, the more they’ll get charged. For those of us willing to hang back and hear it when we hear it, this is a no-value proposition.
    Cheap and Fast is no good either. Papparazzi like this model – TMZ is the king of quick, snappy, no-quality commentators, we know this, but this is also of limited value because it amounts to an amusement, it’s not good quality.
    Cheap and Good takes for ever, but here’s where the trick is; so few of us are willing to accept the waiting period necessary for quality to emerge with no price. This is, however, where a lot of new media is thriving. The wait and see crowd likes in-depth, and they like it free. It might take me a week of research to get a response to the $50k Twitter Landlord lawsuit, but it’ll get there. And people will respond.
    Unfortunatly, there’s very little middle ground. “Good and Fast” is old guard, it’s very drab and in a lot of views, uneconomical. Not exciting, for all its benefits. “Fast and Cheap” doesn’t work because there’s often no value behind the object – it’s TMZ and Fark and all the other novelties, and who wants their dinner discussion to be depthless? Not me.
    “Cheap and Good” is where the blogs are at. It’s depth. It’s interest. And, above all, it’s community and this is the key. The one major stumbling block current media has is a total lack of interface. Sure, I can put a comments section on my CNN and call it interactive. But interaction is a totally different depth than Interface. Interface is plugging in, and this is what the internet is all about, at its core.
    You know what? I think I’ll get down off of Mitch’s soapbox (Thanks for the lending of it, Mitch) and go find my own to continue this on. But I warn you, it may take a while, because I’m a blogger, and I like Good and Cheap.

  10. Cities like Toronto already have free daily newspapers, free weekly community papers, free ethnic newspapers, free, free, free. That’s because advertisers pay the bills. As Jonathan (TMM) points out, readers paying with their scarce attention. That’s very valuable but may not pay the bills without other revenue streams.
    I saw an intriguing tweet from the Wall Street Journal and clicked on the link to read the article. I couldn’t read without paying $US 1.99/week for 52 weeks. Bye. Even if I subscribed, I couldn’t retweet. Incidentally, the content is available ad-free online through the taxpayer-funded Toronto Public Library. Who lost?

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