You only THINK you’re paying for content

(Note: I’m back, at least for a while. It’s a time of even more upheaval in the newspaper industry, and I’ve found myself with a lot to say.)

There’s been a lot more talk about making people pay for online content recently. Dean Singleton made a big deal of that at the AP conference, and has now announced a plan to make people do just that.

It’s a bad idea, one I made fun of and Jeff Jarvis did an intelligent take down of. I could keep making jokes at Singleton’s expense (and still might, actually), but I also want to explain why this idea is so wrong-headed.

The argument is that people pay for content when they buy a newspaper, so they should do the same when they read content online. I’ve been wondering how much people actually pay per story in the newspaper.

Between May 4 and May 8, The Gazette published 335 stories (collections of briefs are counted as one story). That works out to an average of 67 each day. A few years ago, that would have been much higher, but with cutbacks, that sounds about right for a mid-sized daily in a small city. The Gazette’s newsstand price is $0.75 per issue. That means if you bought the paper at your favorite convenience store, you paid an average of about $0.01 per story. In weeks where the number of stories is higher, you’d be paying under that. If you subscribe, that number will come down even further. That penny doesn’t go toward reporting and writing the stories, either. It goes toward the (many) costs to make the physical newspaper.

But who reads all those stories? Some do, I know, but I certainly don’t, and I’m not alone. I read stories that I already know will be interesting to me. But when you’re buying a paper, you have to buy the whole thing, not just the news or sports sections. Online, there’s no such requirement. And who is willing to pay for stories they’re not going interested in?

Now think about how much it costs to publish a newspaper every day. Presses, workers, paper and ink all cost money, not to mention paying people to plan routes and then deliver the papers. The paper shows up at your door, and that’s why you’re willing to pay for it.

You have to seek out—at least somewhat—news stories online, and it doesn’t cost the company nearly as much to publish or display them. So what’s the justification for charging?

I don’t have good figures about the exact daily cost of printing a newspaper (does anyone? I’d love to hear them), but let’s be generous and say it costs twice as much to print a paper than to display it online (I bet that number is closer to five times more expensive). That makes each story online worth about $0.005. How do you collect that? How do you handle readers who feel the story didn’t deliver what the headline promised and want their money back? And, more importantly, isn’t it time to figure out a truly new business model, one that might actually work and help media companies survive, instead of hastening their death?

5 Responses to “You only THINK you’re paying for content”

  1. Michael Andersen  on July 12th, 2009

    I largely agree, but I do think there’s a more optimistic corollary to your excellent observation that readers’ per-story price is so low: As you say, almost nobody reads the whole thing. But finding your personal wheat amid the chaff takes a lot of time and effort.

    To the extent that online publication can help locate the wheat for you, a newspaper’s Web site is providing a better service that is worth more to me than identical content from print. (More thoughts on this here, if you’re interested.)

    Not that a high signal-to-noise ratio is enough to make a publication profitable, obviously. I’m pretty sure the content will have to change, too.

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