The Newspaper Genie Can’t Be Stuffed Back in the Bottle

Over the past few years, newspapers have salivated on and off about the idea of selling online subscriptions to generate much-needed revenue. In practice, few of them have been successful, mostly because most content a newspaper might have wanted to sell is available elsewhere at no cost.

But with newspapers desperate for revenue as they scramble to survive, newspapers are turning their sites again on getting consumers to pay for online content. According to the Financial Times, the Wall St. Journal, for example, is considering micro-payments for specific stories, as well as, monthly subscriptions.

Rupert Murdoch, who owns the WSJ, recently described the availability of free content as a “flawed” business model, while talking about possible fees to read more newspapers within his media empire that includes the Times, Sunday Times and the New of the World.

Murdoch isn’t the first person to bang the drum for online content fees as the newspaper industry continues to implode.

The question is whether getting people to pay for content will be the economic salvation that newspapers need to survive and perhaps thrive. You also have to ask if pay-to-play can rescue an industry with a business model that doesn’t work any more given the blows newspapers have taken from the Web.

As someone who loves reading newspapers and spent 15 years working for them, and someone immersed in the Web and content creations (blogs), I find it difficult to see how you can get the ink-stained genie back in the paid newspaper bottle if there’s someplace, somewhere to find content you want for free.

Consumers have grown accustomed to reading free content from a wide variety of sources. Google News, for example, has made access to free content something that people expect. So if a newspaper such as the WSJ starts to charge for content, it’s hard to believe consumers will pay even if the content is excellent.

The market has changed, and consumers expect to get free online content. Expecting them suddenly pay goes against the editorial grain.

I do think consumers are willing to pay for some content that isn’t a commodity such as long features, excellent essays and well-known columnists. These, however, are exceptions, to the rule even if people such as Mr. Murdoch sees otherwise.

More: For anyone interested in the newspaper industry’s free, a must-read is Clay Shirky’s essay on newspapers, “Newspapers and Thinking the UnThinkable”.

Update: For what it’s worth, the Telegraph said it attracts 75,000 visitors a day from sources such as Digg, Reddit and Twitter. (Hat tip to Econsultancy). As well, Howard Kurtz has an interesting column in the Washington Post that blames newspapers for their own demise.

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