Dear Dean Singleton, Please Charge Me

Westword’s Michael Roberts reports that “Dean Singleton… plans to start charging readers for lotsa online content at select MediaNews papers in California and Pennsylvania beginning in 2010.” This is relevant to us in Colorado because Singleton also publishes the Denver Post. Are fees for the online Post in our future?

God, I hope so.

Good journalism is hard work. Good investigative journalism is especially hard and time-consuming work. People tend not do do a lot of hard work without compensation. (I imagine Roberts would confirm this.) Thus, journalism needs to pay.

Journalism can pay in one of three general ways: advertising, philanthropic contributions, and reader payments. Advertising can be direct or indirect; for example, Michelle Malkin runs direct advertising, and her entire blog serves to advertise her books. (You’ll notice that I advertise my own book, Values of Harry Potter, on my web page. And it makes a fine addition to the tree or stocking!) I would be interested in learning how much of the Incredible Shrinking Westword’s revenues come from print versus online advertising. (While the weekly’s print edition has gotten noticeably smaller, its online content has expanded dramatically.)

I doubt anybody is going to make a generous gift to the Post.

That leaves reader contributions to supplement advertising revenues. These payments can be by the piece or via subscriptions.

As I suggested earlier, I think papers (and it’s funny even to still call them “papers”) should give readers a choice: watch an annoying ad, pay a monthly or annual subscription, or pay to read a single article at a time.

How is that not the best of all worlds? Cheapskates can still read content for free, except they have to pay with their time by watching a real advertisement. Regular readers can subscribe, preferably for a low annual rate (I would seriously consider paying, say, $50 per year to read the Post online). And occasional readers who value their time can pay some token amount — perhaps an amount that varies with the ambition of the piece — to read a single article. As I also mentioned before, the key to this is to figure out a very-fast way to make micropayments (else there is no time savings).

The fact is that readers who value good content and don’t want to waste time looking at ads will be prepared to pay to read that content. I absolutely hate the Post’s online ads that pop up, block text, push text down the page, and otherwise annoy the living hell out of me when all I’m trying to do is read a spot of news. I would much rather pay a little than deal with those sorts of ads.

I think it’s worth revisiting what Post editor Greg Moore said in September:

In terms of advertising being a means of supporting original [journalism]… right now advertising provides like 85 percent of our revenue. It’s still a huge, huge, huge driver. It’s a huge source of revenue. It’s going to be probably for a while. But I think our survival — and when I say survival I’m not talking about the newspaper, I’m talking about our ability to do journalism — I think we’ll have to shift to a different model. And I think that model is that the user will have to pay for the content that he or she consumes.

I don’t think that the cat is out of the bag. I think that the record industry sort of proved that, the music industry sort of proved that you can change people’s behavior. Napster, in the mid-1990s, everyone thought that would just sort of kill everything, and they put those people in jail, put them out of business, and now people pay for music. They do it differently — they don’t buy albums anymore, they buy singles, but they still pay a lot of money for music.

So I think there’s still hope for us, that we can sort of reverse this trend. As somebody said, I think the worst decision that was made by the owners of newspapers was to sort of be stampeded into giving away their content for free. But it doesn’t mean that it’s over.

Unfortunately, rather than quote somebody who knows what he’s talking about, such as Moore, Roberts quotes some clueless blog post by Rob Burgess.

Burgess quotes survey results from NewFiction:

80 percent of consumers recently surveyed by Forrester Research say they would discontinue their favorite free print content if they were asked to pay for it. Less than 10 percent of respondents would agree to subscription models; only three percent would opt for micropayments.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner nicely summarize the problem with this in their new book SuperFreakonomics: “There is good reason to be skeptical of data from personal surveys. There is often a vast gulf between how people say they behave and how they actually behave” (page 7).

If you ask people if they want to pay for something they now get for free, what do you expect them to say? They’re going to give you some variant of “no.”

But if a person actually has a choice of reading a great article and paying, versus not reading that article, in at least some cases the person is going to pay up and ask for more. (Again, I think newspapers would be smart to offer a third option of spending time watching an ad, probably in the form of a short video. These sorts of ads are already common on a variety of web pages.)

So Burgess’s first argument is bunk. Let us turn to his second argument:

You ruined everything in the beginning by starting with giving everything away for free. It has now been almost 15 years since the Internet broke wide and you’re just NOW getting around to asking people to pay for your content? I don’t blame people for not wanting to pay for it anymore, why should they? Who would pay for something they can get for free?

The options are not “get free content” versus “pay for content.” The other option is “get no content,” at least as far as investigative journalism is concerned. With that as the alternative, paying doesn’t look so bad after all. People “should” pay, and they should be willing to, if that’s the only way to get hard-to-produce content they want to read. (Again, easy-to-produce content will remain free, and ads can help pay for hard-to-produce content.)

What Burgess seems to think ridiculous is Singleton’s comment, “We have to condition readers that everything is not free.” But Singleton’s comment is perfectly sensible. Moore uses the example of paying for music online. Today many people pay to receive television stations that they could otherwise get for free, because the reception is better and the broadcast stations are packaged with cable-only stations. Consumers change their behavior all the time, even (or especially) after they say they won’t.

There ain’t no such thing as free journalism. If journalists aren’t willing to work without compensation, philanthropists don’t pay, and advertising doesn’t pay enough, the only alternative is for readers to pay, if they want the benefit of the product.

Really advertising is a way of extracting a payment of time from readers. Again, I think papers should offer that alternative. I would much rather pay in dollars, as for me that would be the far less costly alternative.