What Counts as “Value” on a News Site?

by Emily W. Sussman

Back in December, Eat Sleep Publish’s Jason Preston predicted that fervent readers of a given news site would be willing to open up their wallets, if asked nicely. Using the Financial Times’ model, he visualizes a system of “metered content,” whereby the first thirty or so visits to a news site would be free, but users would incur a charge for looking at additional site content.

From there, Preston channels Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory and predicts that the financial contributions of the top 10 percent of users (the “engaged audience”) will subsidize the remaining 90 percent of freeloading users.

Preston doesn’t go into much detail about how such a system would actually work—that is, whether the site would charge a flat fee for that additional content or use a pay-as-you-go system. Instead, he’s more concerned with debunking the myth that the public will revolt against anything more expensive than free. 

Reassuring panicked editors who like the idea but fear a reader backlash, he tells them 1) the switch will be easier if they to find new kinds of content to put behind the pay walls, rather than take away something readers already have and 2) that the metered content charge will only apply to the top 10 percent of readers, leaving the great majority blissfully unaffected.   

In a separate post from last week, “It’s Time to Charge Money,” Preston points to the New York Timesmultimedia stories as the kind of content that is so good, and so uniquely enriched by the Internet medium (as opposed to plain old words and pictures), people would intuitively understand that it has value. 

But which is it? Dollars for quality (e.g., fancy slideshows) or dollars for quantity (heavy users)? Preston seems enthusiastic about the prospects for the quality pitch, so let’s go with that.

“If you redefine the product,” Preston tells a skeptical reader further down in the comments section, “then you have a chance to sell it.” TimesSelect, the NYT’s foray into paid content, failed, he muses, because it was “nothing you couldn’t get plenty of other places on the internet.”

Hang on a second. Are there really “plenty of other” Nobel-winning economists like Tom Friedman out the blogosphere? (The Times’ op-ed columnists were part of the TimesSelect package.) Are we really disqualifying the paper’s intellectual content just because TimesSelect folded?

One commenter, Allan McDougall, agreed with Preston, saying “The keyword is interface. That’s just stunning. I think interactive content is the way of the future.”

Buzzwords like “interactive” and “multimedia” certainly sound glamorous, and they certainly have enriched the quality of Internet newspapers. But the enormous (and imminent) task of determing what a newspaper should charge for should be based on something solid: either quantitative distinctions (metered content) or meaningful qualitative criteria. And buzzwords probably aren’t going to do it. 


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