The bare freemium

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a background in journalism from my time in student media – I spent three years with the Glasgow University Guardian, working my way up to the position of editor. I’ve experienced a microcosm of the issues that newspapers in the mainstream press face, and due to the timing of my involvement, I know what it’s like to fight to keep a publication alive during the economic downturn. For reference – bloody hard. As a result, I’ve always had a huge interest in the way the big guns of the newspaper industry are trying to figure out how they can make money from their online offerings, and ultimately, in a world becoming dominated by digital content, how they can make money as an organisation.

So far, it’s been a bit of a farce to watch. Paywall is a dull idea that relies on a key fact – that people are willing to pay for the quality offered by organisations such as The Times, over the huge volume of other news sources that exist online. This is a hard sell – even as a journalist and a photographer, I’m really not interested in paying to see news content produced by The Times, if I can get something roughly similar, for free. News is news – a lot of content comes from the wires (press agency feeds of generically-written news content, which the major papers subscribe to), and is re-written into the style of an individual newspaper by the staff writers who work there. Sure, you’ll always have exclusives, but even then, the web is still crashing in on the party – The Guardian published a huge amount of Wikileaks content directly to their website, where it was viewable for free, across the world. And of course, the sheer velocity of The Internet means that as soon as an exclusive is out there, it takes much less time for the competition to rush out something of their own. In this digital age, an exclusive is only exclusive for the blink of an eye.

However, consider The Financial Times – a newspaper that’s absolutely nailing the paywall concept, to the point that it’s even attracting more subscribers whilst increasing subscription costs by around 20% (source). From the same sourced article, you’ll notice that the NY Times has been so impressed that it has adopted a similar model for its own paywall, which is utterly bizarre. Why? Well, consider what the FT offers, and why people subscribe. It’s a highly specialised publication, that’s as much a trade journal as it is a daily newspaper – its readership is based around a very specific demographic, and provides unique content, provided by writers with a huge knowledge of an incredibly intricate, complicated niche. The NY Times, as much as it may have a reputation for quality journalism in the US, is starkly similar to other newspapers across the world. Add in the fact that it’s already tried (and failed) to use a paywall in the past and you begin to see why I’m not convinced about it being a viable option.

I read this article, by Oliver Reichenstein with interest – it’s the main reason I’ve finally dragged myself to the computer to write this blog, to be honest. It’s interesting to hear him talk about the idea of freemium news, but at the same time, I wonder how much consideration of the potential user is going on when proposing this approach. Freemium newspaper content already exists in print form, in a way – consider the raft of free papers that we’re now accosted by, and what they provide. I can get a free paper on the train in the morning, and a different one in the evening – the quality of the journalism is below the quality that I’d pay to read, but not so much that I’ve ever felt the need to go and buy a proper paper to read a better quality version of that story. So despite the annoyance of the slightly sub-par copy I’m faced with, I’m not really encouraged to go out and spend more on a premium product. It also proposes that customers would want to buy content from a news outlet, based on the fact that they’re not satisfied with what the quality that same outlet has managed to provide already – I remain to be convinced that people wouldn’t just immediately look elsewhere for a better quality of free content, and that’s considering the actual quality of the articles in the publication, not just the page formatting of article – I don’t think Reichenstein is going anywhere near far enough with the changes he suggests to make this into a business class experience.

So, what’s the solution? Well, all I can offer is a similar discussion that I’ve had in the pub with a couple of different people – one, a staff writer at a prestigious newspaper, the other, a designer whose opinion I respect (and it takes a lot for a designer to achieve that). It’s quite a bold idea, but bare with me a bit.

Newspapers need to stop trying to figure out how to make money out of online news, and view it as a loss-leader. 

With online news, the genie hasn’t so much been let out of the bottle, as much as he has been dragged out, and had his lamp smashed to pieces. There will always be free news on the web, and discussing this, my opinion is that individual newspapers need to look at what they can offer that nobody else can. Again, look at the FT – a publication that thrives on offering quality in a specific area of journalism. So how can a generic newspaper make money in the same way? Where is the unique content in a paper that covers the same events as all its rivals? My writer friend and I talked about this, and his feeling is that the answer lies in the strength of features, and using basic news content like supermarkets use cases of Stella.

Reichenstein is onto something with the quality aspect, but it’s more in-depth than just the beauty of the page. It’s about supporting free content with follow-up content that enhances and augments – if you accept that anyone can access news for free, then what a newspaper wants is for their readers to access the basic news on their site (which should be offered to everyone at the business class level that’s suggested, as that will help single out the site amongst others) and stick around for the added value. With a basic news report, there’s comment and news features that can be produced unique to that publication; with a standard sports report, there’s analysis, interviews and pundit response – every newspaper has the potential to make the features content different from the base news story, which itself has essentially become worthless when people can read all about it on for nothing via the BBC. All this is before you even consider features content like we’re used to in Sunday supplements, where the beautification aspect Reichenstein has shown can really make it all sing.

The industry shouldn’t ask potential customers to upgrade because they think the free version is crap, and want to see virtually the same thing in a more attractive way – they need to get them to upgrade based on the fact that they’ve had their balls blown off with the quality of a tiny part of what a given newspaper can offer, and that for only a little more money, they can get so much more added value.

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