Posted March 24, 2011 3:36 pm by with 4 comments

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Remember when delivering the daily paper was the responsibility of a neighbor kid on a Schwinn bike? We not only paid to have that wad of knowledge slap down on our doorsteps every morning, we even happily tipped the boy when he came to collect the fee every week.

Ah, the good old days. Now people balk when you ask them to spend cold, hard cash to have that very same paper delivered instantly to their mobile device. Yes, the same people who will spend hundreds of real dollars to keep up a virtual farm, balk at the idea of spending $18 to read the news. Amazing, isn’t it?

The Wall Street Journal is out to change the way those people think by offering individual issue downloads on the iPad for only $1.99. The idea, of course, is that once you sample the full product, you’ll no longer be happy with the watered-down free version. It works in mall food courts, so why not on the iPad?

Here’s why not. The Wall Street Journal and soon the New York Times and every other paper considering a paywall have to prove to the public that by paying, they’ll get something they can’t get anywhere else. That’s a tough sell and not just because people are used to getting things free on the internet. It’s the “news” portion of selling the news that hurts. News isn’t proprietary. I don’t need the New York Times to know what’s happening in Japan. I can go to CNN or Huffington Post or Twitter even.

In order to get customers to pay for news, a paper has to demonstrate a special knack for better commentary, exclusive sources, or the ability to break news faster than the competitor. People will pay to access online content. The adult biz has thrived on paywalls for many, many years. But it seems like a niche paper such as the Civil War Bayonet Collector’s Gazette would have an easier time selling digital subscriptions than a major newspaper, because it truly does contain information you can’t find anywhere else.

What do you think about the idea of selling single-issue downloads? Is it the path to conversion, an extra revenue stream, or another useless shot at getting people to pay for the cow when the milk is already free?

  • thanks for this post cynthia and yes technlogy never ceases to amaze me. Banking over the internet, newspaper on ipads….etc…etc.. what is next? pizza delivery over the internet? I forgot you can order over the internet now!

    • tjdestry

      If you’ve read the hardcopy edition of the Wall Street Journal, you know that it does, indeed, carry the kind of specialised information that people are willing to pay for. In fact, Wall Street Journal is the example of a paywall that works, because (A) it’s information you can’t get anywhere else without a great deal of time and effort and (B) subscribers can voucher it at work (duh!).

      But the overall idea that “news is news” only works for those who don’t care much about news. If all you want are the stories everyone else is reading, it’s not hard to find them on an aggregator. And if all you want is news about, say, a favorite sports team or famous person, it’s easy to set up a feed to provide you with all coverage you want. But if you want to know what’s going on in your old hometown, the bits and pieces even on the Old Hometown Journal page are not necessarily sufficient, and certainly not as good as getting an e-edition of the OHJ delivered to your computer-or-other-device.

      There isn’t a sufficient market for a web-only, pay-only local newspaper. The cost of gathering and assembling the news is too much. But any paper that is already offering a print edition is nuts not to sign up for the software to offer an online subscription to a replica, complete with all the little notes about who got married and who scored in last night’s high school game and the pictures from the Fourth of July parade. In fact, I had a replica subscription to my local paper for several years, even though I lived in town and could have had it delivered. It was easier to read on the screen and I liked not having the paper to recycle.

      • Cynthia Boris

        You do hit a point I meant to mention but left out – the advantage to subscribing is the ease of finding everything in one place, and knowing that it’s a reliable source.

        My article wasn’t meant to be disparaging in regard to the Wall Street Journal’s journalists, but as a journalist, I’ve seen a disturbing trend toward putting fast and popular in front of well-thought out, informative or entertaining news. I know the journalists want to do it, but editors have to keep the hits coming (and I imagine it’s the same whether downloading or online) in order to keep the advertisers.

        As for local news, well, indeed, that’s an online market that just keeps trying to find its feet, isn’t it?

  • If they sign up advertisers who offer exclusive, valuable coupons in those electronic editions, they *MIGHT* actually devise a pay model that works.