Alan Mutter on his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur, has published a checklist for publications to follow in their attempts to start charging for online news content.
Mutter argues that charging for particular content such as world, national, business, sports and entertainment news is not an option, though perhaps some revenue could be generated from local news if it is of a good enough quality. Niche news publications, such as those in the 'business to business realm' could probably charge users for exclusive information, as could those producing exculsive entertainment content. But apart from these publications (which is just about everyone), he says that newspapers need to totally modify their attitude toward the way and the type of content they produce before they can even contemplate trying to sell it.
Using the examples of INDenver Times and the Rocky Mountain Independent, both failed online news initiatives started by Steve Foster this year, Mutter explained why newspapers consistently get it wrong when they 'jump into' charging for online content. Quite simply, he blames 'a suicidally stubborn determination on the part of the organizers to be in the business they want to be in, instead of attending to the business they need to attend to.' Journalists working on the two websites continued to write as if writing for a broadsheet daily paper and expected that if they produced the same content and put it online, they could charge for it.
'Sorry, folks, it doesn't work that way,' says Mutter. The reason INDenver Times and the RMI didn't succeed is because they ignored the market (only 5% of which, according to recent polls, would pay for online news), they ignored the medium not taking advantage of the interactive nature of the Internet, and they ignored the business side of things, something Mutter says is just as important as the editorial quality. 'A business, especially a start-up, requires far more than passion for the work. It requires close attention to the nuts and bolts of raising money, making sales and controlling expenses. Above all else, it requires the discipline of living within your means until the business grows healthy enough to fund your aspirations.'
Mutter himself, who started out as a journalist and is now a consultant specializing in 'corporate initiatives and new media ventures that combine journalism and technology,' thinks that publishers could better spend their energy looking at different ways to draw back advertisers, rather than ways to directly charge readers for online content. In an interview with the Editors Weblog in July, Mutter spoke of his own project, Viewpass, and how it might help newspapers to increase revenue. The idea is to ask users to 'pay' to read an article with their personal information, which publications could then sell to advertisers in the promise of offering them more targeted exposure. Mutter believes this has the potential to generate much more profit than charging for reading articles and does not pose problems over revenue splitting, as some other paid content projects which suggest a 'bundle'-type newskiosk might have.
Though a number of publications had expressed their interest in Viewpass at a meeting organise by the Newspaper Association of America in May, to date no one has actually signed on and put up the financial support needed to run the project. Mutter writes on his blog: If [publishers] come to the conclusion that they want us to build ViewPass, we will. If they don't, we won't. They have to want it as much as we do. Arguably, even more.'
So perhaps journalists and publishers need to start being more-open minded in the ways they look at their profession and their industry and accept that times have changed. As one commenter responded to Mutter's blog post : 'For years, newspapers have dictated what readers would read. But the freedom given by the Internet has led to a rebellion where they are going elsewhere to get what they want and need.' The news people wanted and paid for in the past, is not necessarily the same news people will pay for today and newspapers need to explore the capacity of the Internet to enhance stories and provide new, interesting and interactive ways to deliver content before figuring out how to charge for it. Focusing on how to lure back advertisers, perhaps with a model such as Viewpass could be a way to bridge the financial gap in the meantime.