News websites begin to tinker with per-click, iTunes-style story access

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comMay 13, 2013 

3/20/13

No one likes paying for something they once received for free, but the marketplace had decided: Newspaper websites (and thus newspaper companies) won’t remain viable unless those who consume their content pay for it, too.

The method of payment, however, is still undecided.

Some newspapers have installed hard paywalls on their sites, requiring users to pay a fee the first time they attempt to view a story or other piece of content. Others, such as The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, have adopted metered access, in which a subscription after a pre-determined threshold of page views is reached.

Less prevalent — but perhaps more intriguing — is “a la carte” journalism, in which readers pay a fee per story (or photo gallery or video) viewed, rather than a blanket subscription that applies whether they read 12 stories or 12,000. To put this in terms of online music, one might think of subscriptions as a Spotify model for content and a la carte as the iTunes model.

There’s no law that says one model or the other must vanquish the other, or that other workable models will not emerge. But just as there are more similarities than differences between the business models of print newspapers — they all seek to provide similar services with similar technology to readers with somewhat similar habits — it seems likely that over time, one model for online news will be more prevalent than others.

The implications could prove as profound for news providers as they were for the music industry — and if you doubt iTunes’ impact, consider what the Apple Store did for the mp3 file format, and the sales of both mp3 players and CDs.

Even among sites that charge for content, the iTunes model seems to be a small minority, but as the blog eByline.Com recently reported:

Salem, Mass.-based CrowdNe.ws is now in beta and offers a marketplace for journalists to sell directly to readers on a per-article basis. “We are flooded with so much information that we don’t really want or need,” says CrowdNe.ws founder and CEO J. Michael Wheeler. “I spend a lot of time on my RSS feeds saying ‘No, I don’t want to read that.’ People do that in traditional media. You open up The New York Times and thumb through five to six pages before you pick a story to read.”

For now, content on CrowdNe.ws is available for whatever readers want to pay via PayPal. That’s mostly because the site hasn’t really figured out competitive pricing.

“Wheeler says they may allow journalists to set their own price or use market pricing where ‘the more popular the article is, the more expensive it is when you purchase it,’ ” eByline reported. Or, sites could just keep it simple with per-click pricing.

Whatever the case, the possibilities seem plentiful, particularly for new market entrants. For instance, rather than covering the news itself, a provider could specialize in aggregating and marketing content it on behalf of freelancers or non-traditional news gatherers with a message to push. That’s not much of a stretch given the abundance of aggregators that already exist.

A la carte pricing might also radically alter readers’ habits.

Just as iTunes was no friend to album sales or deep cuts, per-article news sales might spell the end of dry-but-important dispatches from the City Council Finance Committee. Just as conceivably, readers might reach the point of diminishing returns on celebrity news much faster if they have to pay for every click in a paparazzi gallery.

Online pricing arrangements are still in very nascent stages and no doubt will be affected further by migration to mobile and tablet devices. What makes sense on the desktop might not make sense there, after all.

And I suppose a few advertising-dependent, free-to-the-reader sites might also persist — although at this point, anyone paying attention would be more likely to hold out their wallet than to hold out hope of that.

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