Giving your newspaper content away for free online is foolish

Giving your newspaper content away for free online is foolish.

It does indeed cannibalize your circulation.

Qualification: I’m speaking only for local newspapers who’s community focused content is unique and generally valued by only a narrowly defined audience.  For news organizations with national or international aspirations, different rules apply.

Here’s the conundrum for local newspapers — giving newspaper content away for free isn’t a successful strategy, charging for it online won’t work, and not using the web to grow your business is suicide.

That makes it seem, then, like newspaper publishers have no option. If they give their content away for free online, they’re helping to kill their print business; if they don’t have a news web site, they risk losing their entire local news franchise (to an online-only start up) and they also abandon the one avenue they have to generate new revenue and grow the business.

What no newspaper publisher has considered, as far as I know, and at least not in a long time, is a third way.  Rather than giving away content, or charge for it or not even having a web site, the third way is create an entirely different web operation.

Let me state the obvious: The web is not print. Content publishers online require a completely different mindset from print journalists. The people who produce content for the web should not be the people who produce content for print. (Not that print people aren’t smart enough to learn web publishing — they certainly are, but they’re too concentrated on print when that’s their primary livelihood).

An online news site needs to comply with the following criteria:

  • Continuously updated
  • Use of multimedia
  • Personal-voice writing
  • Community building
  • User customization
  • Web strategy designed around pull rather than push
  • A separate, online-only sales staff with no constraints

There’s a lot of money to be made for local news sites if they can build strong, loyal online audiences and generate a buzz among readers and advertisers about what they’re doing, but unless and until newspaper publishers start seeing more clearly that the web is not print, their local news franchises are likely doomed.

6 thoughts on “Giving your newspaper content away for free online is foolish

  1. Right on the button. We’ve been having discussions along this line too. We’re bringing together a group of people to discuss this next week on what we should stop doing, start doing and start developing but substantially getting away from just copying the newspaper online.

    Product differentiation is nothing new to us. We publish newspapers, magazines, agriculture weeklies, city guides .. all of them different. Online should be too!

    You’ve given us a nice framework from which to build upon.  

  2. I like your list at the bottom, but I’d correct one point.

    User customization is really a sub-set of a greater goal: user-friendly site experience. Good UX is something that no newspaper has managed to do well online. While user-customization a lá BBC is a good goal, the over-arching goal needs to be a web-first site design instead of something based on the print product. 

  3. I generally agree with Vin Crosbie, that we need to get to the point where users can have a measure of control over what content they see and how.

  4. Most of Howard’s recommendations add up to a flashy, hideously expensive Web site but no revenue. His very last one refers to "sales staff with no constraints" but no constraints on doing what?

    Newspapers currently sell to vendors. Since readers are not going to pay for news and begging for charity won’t work, that’s going to continue. So newspapers have to sell enough VALUE to vendors to cover the cost of news gathering and distribution.

    The value of what newspapers currently sell to vendors is plummeting because the supply of ad space is becoming infinite. The solution is not to give sales reps "no constraints" on how feverishly and unethically they they can try to sell a low-value product but to give them a high-value product they can sell with ease and integrity.

    That product is NOT "readers". What’s a vendor supposed to do with people who just want to look at stuff? Niney-nine per cent of them are a waste of his staff’s time, just more work and no revenue.

    Oysters are dirt cheap compared to pearls because one must shuck a lot of the former to find one of the latter. For the same reason, readers are dirt cheap compared to qualified buyers – people who feel the pain of a need, know what they need, and have the money to pay for it.

    Google "lead generation" and learn how to do it. Invest gobs of money in providing that valuable service. Sell qualified buyers to vendors, not empty space to advertisers.

    I write news for a B2B lead generation firm. What I write brings them lots of oysters and so they get lots of pearls to sell. So many pearls of such high value to vendors that they could afford to pay me in the first two weeks of February enough to cover my essentials until Labor Day.

    Shucking oysters is where the money is!


  5. So, The Batavian is a flashy news site?  Could have fooled me.  I mean, that’s really what I’m describing here, but I didn’t put it exactly in those terms because I think within the broad framework of what I’m proposing is plenty of room to experiment.

    There’s nothing in my proposal that equals large expense, but the exact opposite.

    And I’m flabbergasted that you would conclude that I’m suggesting unethical or hard sell techniques. What would cause you to jump to such an unsubstantiated conclusion? The only problem I’m addressing is the traditional conflict between online and print sales staffs.  In this model, you have a separate online sales team who never even talks to the print staff and the print staff has no say whatsoever who the online staff sells to.  Let the customer decide where best to spend his or her money. Don’t put an artificial constraint on the buying decision by trying to "protect print revenue."

  6. One of the cornerstones of my master’s project was a key factor identified by a Harvard researcher.  This is obvious to Web folks, but not print folks.  He found in his study of newspapers that those who separated the online operation from the print operation were far more likely to succeed in web publishing. 

    Problem is finding a publisher with the desire and, oh yeah, the capital, to make that investment. 


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