OXFORD — Twenty-seven cents.
That’s what a newspaper in Canada has decided to charge per story for viewers who visit its digital edition and scroll around for news and information.
Customers will create an account. Their selections will be tracked, and their credit cards will be charged for each click.
The name of the Winnipeg newspaper is the Free Press.
But no press is free. Those who gather “content” (a loathsome word to journalists) must eat, pay rent and car notes just as other humans do. They like to get paid.
By now, we all know the financial arrangement that sustained print and broadcast media companies for many decades has been diluted. The major source of money for media operations came from advertisers who found it beneficial to piggyback their messages with news and entertainment.
As more and more people shop online for jobs, homes, cars, clothing and other consumer needs, advertisers’ dollars are being spent more broadly.
Media companies created and keep ramping up their Internet offerings, but the advertising hasn’t followed — at least not dollar for dollar. Think about it. When a shopper is looking for, say, a ladder, the shopper visit websites of stores that sell ladders. Stores have a diminishing need to pay media outlets to tout their products.
So, for at least 15 years, media companies have been casting about for other revenue streams.
One approach by newspapers and magazines has been to increase subscription prices. Not too long ago, newspapers sold for a quarter. Now, some are $2 per copy.
When media companies started websites, the vast majority imposed no fees or charges of any type. Circulation directors complained about this, pointing out it was not easy to sell a product to some people while others were getting it free, but “free news” became the expectation of the public.
Gradually, print media companies inflicted “pay walls” on readers. They vary greatly, some offering a little time on the site before a person is told to pay or go away. Others say “pay or go away” immediately.
All sorts of consequences ensued. For one thing, there was public outrage over being “gouged” by “greedy” media companies. For another, there are so many alternative sources. If a person who wants to know the score of last night’s baseball game visits the local newspaper website and hits a pay wall, the person can click away and find the score someone else … Twitter, the school website … tons of “free” options. A media company can’t really expect a person to pay unless there is exclusive “content” a viewer really wants to see.
Now along with all of this, major changes have evolved in how consumers do their research and make their buying decisions. People tend to want facts, especially for major purchases. They don’t really care whether they are looking at information offered by a manufacturer (formerly called advertising copy) or by a neutral product reviewer. People will read articles and customer comments about resorts or cars or exercise equipment to get the information they seek, and they really don’t care who wrote it.
Where is all of this going?
The only thing that can be said for sure is that the demand for news and information and entertainment is increasing exponentially.
The Winnipeg Free Press is not the first to come up with a pay-per-story approach. Some companies actually extend this thinking and, in turn, pay writers based on how many readers they attract. If no one reads an article, the journalist is paid nothing. If millions do, the journalist gets a big, fat check. As has happened with other experiments, others will mimic and modify to see what, if anything, gets traction.
As indicated, the key is high-quality, exclusive news and information that people want. But sometimes budgeteers can’t wrap their spreadsheets around that simple fact.
In the interim, there is hope. People do change their habits and their thinking over time. Some of us are old enough to remember the ironclad fact in American society that television and radio were free. In the early days of cable the mere notion of paying $3.50 per month to get a few more channels was an option only for the wealthy. Today, as we know, most households pay $100 to $200 or more monthly for the opportunity to watch “Duck Dynasty” 24/7.
But cable, satellite and Internet TV are being challenged, too.
Who will be paid how much for what remains an open question.
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