Can the Average Net-User Rationalize Paying for News Content?

May 14th, 2009

Steve Shannon
Copyright The May 11th edition of the Wall Street Journal contained a very interesting op-ed by author Mark Helprin, “Copyright Critics Rationalize Theft.” In the piece, he discusses how opponents of copyright make various specious arguments that copyright stifles creativity, commerce, freedom and then he deftly points out how they are, of course, wrong.

Without copyright protections, creators of original works would have little financial incentive to create them; thus, there would be less of the very things challengers claim copyright inhibits. Think about how many books, articles, websites, songs, software, and movies wouldn’t exist if their creators weren’t able to make their living doing so.

Helprin’s points also collide with an emerging issue affecting the news media, newspapers in particular:  How will they profit from their creative works published online, which they currently give away for free, when they are not earning enough revenue from a failed ad-supported model? Publishers may look to a system of micropayments and/or “passes” (read: subscriptions) that will charge users to view articles. So, to riff on the title of Helprin’s piece, can the average net-user rationalize paying for news content?

My prediction is that we’ll see a many folks adopt this model right away. The first group is the same “influentials” and “heavy news consumers” who now read the paper version of publications. This group includes me, and I pay $40 a month to have The New York Times chucked in my driveway every day. I’d gladly pay the same to access its great content online, especially if the print edition went away. 

Then there is a second group consisting of “media snackers,” who only consume content from outlets such as The Washington Post, online.  The Washington Post has a print circulation of 665,000 but draws 9.4 million unique visitors to its site each month. Those 9.4 million don’t all live in the D.C. area, and their browsing clearly shows they value something about the original content. (I’m a D.C. area native and I keep up on the region everyday on, so I certainly see the appeal.)

Assuming a print subscription to The Washington Post also costs $40 per month, those 9.4 million unique visitors would each need to pay $2.83 per month to equal the subscription revenues the paper gets for its print edition. That’s less than 10 cents per day in any given month. Of course, not all 9.4 million will pony up, but you get my point.

That’s where the micropayment model would work. Want to read one article on a newspaper site that you found through search?  Pay 99 cents.  Prefer to get a pass to let you read as many articles as you wish for a month? Pay six bucks. Want a pass to a consortium of sites? I’m sure that will exist as well.

If you think about it, the vast majority of creative journalism these days is still being driven by traditional media for their ad-supported print edition, and posted online, mostly for free. As revenues associated with the print mode of delivery decline, publishers will need to make up that revenue or go out of business. Like it or not, net-users will have to rationalize paying for content. It may be a micropayment model I’ve outlined above, or some other model, but they will have to pay. There is no such thing as a free lunch (or journalism).

Would you pay for online content? Share your thoughts with us here at BurrellesLuce.

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