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.