Will paid online content be the future for news outlets? Journalism Online thinks so, and has just announced that more than 1,000 publishers have signed 'letters of intent' with the start-up, which promises to facilitate charging online.
An American Press Institute study which surveyed industry executives across the US and Canada reported that 58% of respondents are currently considering initiating paid access to their websites, a figure which JO co-founder Steve Brill declared as "absolutely consistent with what we are finding in the United States and around the world."
It is necessary to remember that one of the companies involved in the survey, ITZ Publishing, is a partner of Journalism Online. The other company is Belden Interactive: the two consultants who carried out the study are Greg Harmon (of Belden) and Greg Swanson (of ITZ). The study's findings so far were presented at a meeting hosted by the API.
Almost half of the respondents (49%) were undecided on a timescale for introducing paid online content, and when asked about whether revenue from charging online would significantly contribute to the future of newspapers, 51% thought it somewhat or very likely, the rest considering it unlikely or unknown. There is no consensus in the industry, therefore, on whether charging for online content is the best way forward or now.
The paid online content approach that survey participants considered the most likely was a free homepage with headlines and access to story summaries, with the full text of stories behind a pay wall requiring a monthly subscription.
Micropayments were far down the list with regards to how likely respondents said they were to use them, but the study made a case for their usefulness. People typically read 4 out of perhaps 40 newly available articles online on any given day, and therefore if they were paying for this they would be wasting 90% of the purchase price.
With regards to unauthorised use of content, 85% of publishers were somewhat or very concerned, but only 25% were engaged in actively tracking their content across the web.
The API study compared the results of the survey of publishers to a survey of visitors to newspaper websites about the usefulness and possible replacements of newspaper websites. The biggest discrepancies in opinions of publishers and visitors appeared when asked about what sources visitors would use if their local paper of choice's website was not available. 75% of publishers thought that readers would turn to the print edition of their publication, but only 30% of visitors responded that this would be one of the places to which they would turn. 68% of readers surveyed would go to other local Internet sites.
The survey also looked at different types of newspaper website audiences at local newspaper websites: 'core loyalists,' 'incidental loyalists' and 'fly-by' visitors. The core loyalists, although comprising 25% of visitors, account for the vast majority of page views. The API study suggests that single-day passes might be the best method for charging, as they would have some appeal to all visitor types and would be likely to encounter the least resistance.
Alan Mutter offers some figures gathered by Harmon on what consumers might be willing to pay for online content: 47% of the group surveyed said they would not be prepared to pay at all, and the average that respondents would consider paying was $4.64 per month. Would such a figure be enough for publishers?
The research highlighted missed opportunities for ePaper, interactivity and registration, and warned against letting print precepts drive thinking, when visitors' focus is on Internet and TV.
The findings of this study come a matter of days after it emerged that Google, along with ten other technology giants and start-ups, has put together a proposal for providing a paid online content solution for publishers, in response to a call from the Newspaper Association of America. It seems increasingly likely that paid online content in general interest publications will indeed go ahead in some form or another, but the findings of this study suggest that not all publishers are intending to go along with it.