News isn’t free, and the faster we get to this realization as media companies, the better we will be as an industry.
Covering the news of the day costs money. It takes resources to employ a professional reporter, buy equipment, maintain a printed paper and website, and basics like turning the lights on every day.
This is why it perplexes me that news organizations are still under the delusion of being able to give their content away for free and making the money up with advertising. I know that was the original business model for newspapers, but news flash: shit changed over the last 20 years, and we have to pivot to continue to provide the service so many people want in our communities. If you run a free newspaper and website (we have one) than that is fine, but don’t mix the streams.
Yes, I am advocating for a hard pay wall (let’s work on killing this term and replacing it, too… gees, we are marketers, but that is for another column) and guarding our content like it has value and people should pay for it. You know, like a business would.
I have been told the industry has opened Pandora’s Box and the only way to be relevant is to give away our content and pray. People expect it to be free, so the only way to maintain any semblance of business requires us to adapt to them and their want for more and more free content.
I call bullshit on all of that nonsense. First of all, the only companies making money as content generators online are places like BuzzFeed who have billions of clicks, not thousands like many community weeklies and dailies. Second of all, shouldn’t we value the hard work we put in day in and day out to get the news of the day? Doesn’t valuing it mean that we should charge folks for our hard work? I say so.
Even if you won’t admit it in a crowd of people at your convention or to your publisher friends, most weeklies and community dailies are making less than 5 percent of overall revenue with digital products. Everyone just thinks everyone else is making money so they keep throwing crap on the wall and hoping for a silver bullet that will solve all problems. Funny story, it doesn’t exist, and no third party shit is going to save your bottom line. Your content will save it, though, as it is the most valuable thing you own. Start acting like it.
I can hear you all now.
“What about the backlash?” “What if someone starts a free competitor?” “How can we turn back now and change?”
There are simple answers to these questions if you think about it.
Backlash? Who cares. Are they going to start going to the city council meetings themselves? Eventually the trolls will go away, and the people who care about what is happening in their community will pay for it, and they are more valuable than a click on your website that earns you 1/10 of a penny. Young people were never real readers, not even before the Internet, so why worry about them? They will come around when they buy a house and send kids to school. You know, just like you did.
Free competitor? Sure, that could be a problem depending on how deep their pockets are, but in most cases, the person who starts a blog or website to compete with you will stop after realizing they can’t make money doing it, either. In most cases, they certainly aren’t going to start up a free printed paper on top of that. You know the investment that comes with that. If you are already a free newspaper then great, give the content away online as it is already free in print. That is your business model and that makes sense. The problem is when you charge for a printed paper but give away your content online. That doesn’t make sense.
How can we change now? Simple. Put a subscription service on your website, show readers you have value and start slowly earning their business back and not just their clicks. People will take from you if you allow them to. They will purchase a product if you ask them to.
The biggest problem with what I propose is most of you won’t do it. You still live in a fantasy world that giving away your content is a great idea. Or some of you are even worse. You have installed soft pay walls on your website and give only five to 10 clicks a month on your site for free until they have to pay.
You guys are just fooling yourselves.
Sure, you saw some money flow in from your softwall launch and you patted yourself on the back. Those people just like you and want to support you regardless. They would even with a hard pay wall.
Anyone who wants the content for free on your site can find it by opening up a handy dandy incognito window on their phone or laptop, and even those who don’t know how simple that is know how to clear their cookies. That was Internet 101 back in the ’90s.
People aren’t stupid, and it is far too easy to get around your dumb blocks, so why waste your time with them?
We never felt the need to give our content away for free before the Internet, even for just a taste, unless we were doing a special promotion or subscription drive, so why do you feel the need to give it away five clicks at a time?
Tear the Band-Aid off, people. The solutions are simple. Give folks content they care about that they can’t find anywhere else and charge for it. Sure, there will be some speed bumps, but the only way to create a business plan for the future is to treat gathering news like a business and not a community service. You want to do charity work, good for you. I have a business to run.
Make it as painless and simple as possible, but putting a purchase barrier makes more sense than not. Do it and don’t look back, even if that 5 percent you were making digitally is slightly painful at first. The long road of selling our content will be far more profitable than fighting for pennies.