Tuesday, January 1, 2013

To pay or not to pay

The time has come. Two of the regional papers I read online daily have finally gone to subscription-only access. Sigh. We knew the free news access had to end at some time as people ended print subscriptions in lieu of reading online for free. I fully understand why newspapers need to charge for access to their product. The question for me now becomes how much am I willing to pay for that access? I'm kind of a news junkie. Can I really live with not being able to read my local papers?

So far, I have not been impressed with the roll-out of digital subscriptions on either paper. One gave plenty of notice, but offers a subscription package that is offensive. The Topeka paper is offering a digital only subscription for $15 a month. But a print + digital subscription is only $12.50 a month. In my view, this is completely unacceptable. The environmental waste alone enrages me. I haven't subscribed to a print paper for years because I do not want the waste of that daily paper, the energy used to create it and the paper itself. Even with recycling, you can't undo that environmental impact. So the idea that I would have to pay more to avoid having that waste means there is no way I will pay for a digital subscription until they change this policy. I have communicated with the publisher about this and received an answer that was befuddling in its obtuseness. It's 2013, people. (Also, I find it utterly bizarre that one can't even view the "contact us" page on the website without a subscription!) The publisher swore to me that they offered a la carte pricing, but I have yet to see that option. Finally, the paper says it gives people access to 10 free articles per month, but I'm unclear when that resets as I still can't access any articles today, at the start of a new month. So far, not impressed with the Topeka paper and not willing to subscribe.

Then this morning, I went to check out the Kansas City paper. Read an article. Then I went to read a second article and with absolutely no warning, got a "you must subscribe" message. Oy. The notice thing is what I'm irked about here, because it seems if you've been offering a service for free for years, you might want to give people a little notice, a transition period if you will. At least their subscription package is (marginally) better than the Topeka paper's as it's only $10 a month, with the first month at only $1.

I honestly don't remember how much a paper subscription costs, so maybe my pricing notions are off, but $10 a month still seems like a lot. I just don't read that much of the paper. I read the political and crime stories, with a few sports stories on the side. I do not read 100% of the paper, or even 50%. I don't like the idea of paying for a whole lot of stuff I will never use. But I'm also not in the newspaper business and have no idea what their costs are and how much they need to charge to cover them. Somehow, though, it seems like the digital age is a prime opportunity for newspapers to expand their subscriber base if they could come up with more creative pricing strategies. How about offering a lower price for access to, say, 50 articles a month? I bet on both the Topeka and Kansas City papers, that's about what I average. I bet I would willingly pay up to $5 per month for that. I bet a lot of people would pay for that kind of access at a lower price as opposed to the whole kit and kaboodle for $10-15 a month.

My main hesitation at subscribing to either of these papers right now is that my truly local paper is still fully free online. I would not hesitate to subscribe to that one, as it's the one I read the most frequently. I doubt I would balk at paying $10 a month for that one. Until I know whether I will have to subscribe to that paper, I am reluctant to commit to either of the other two that I rely on less. Especially with the feeling that I won't really be using all that I pay for.

I think this transition from free online news access to subscription services will be fascinating to watch unfold. It's uncharted territory for everyone. Newspapers don't have anyone but themselves to blame for online readers balking at paying $10 a month for something they have freely accessed for years. Over a decade in some cases. I fear they may be shooting themselves in the foot by starting paid subscriptions at such high prices. Ease people in, folks. I really don't object to paying you for the service. You're just not convincing me with the prices you're charging so out of the blue. Somewhere there has to be a sweet spot, a perfect pricing plan that gets people to pony up without complaint and lets newspapers keep the lights on. I really hope that sweet spot is less than $10 a month per paper.

What say you? How much would you pay for online news access? Especially to a newspaper you've gotten used to reading for free?


Dan said...

I think $10 a month is really not very high at all. That's, what, 30 cents a day, for a daily product? Seems pretty reasonable to me.

A la carte pricing -- say, just for the sports section -- is a fine idea in theory, but the newsgathering ecosystem might not survive it. Letting market forces dictate that the most lucrative sections are the ones that you prioritize means that topics that don't have a broad base of interest on a regular basis are de-priortized; that sounds fine, except that some of the important stories will come out of sections that you're not interested in right now. For a paper to properly cover its region, it needs to be involved in all aspects of that region's business/political/cultural/etc life. Sometimes crime stories start out as business stories (or food stories!), which means that your interests are probably broader than what you think of as your interests.

Which is to say: newsgathering works best when it's explicitly not driven by market forces, because what the public wants in the short-term are rarely what it needs in the long-term, and the sort of deep reporting that makes papers valuable require a lot of time that doesn't go to just putting the words on the page/screen. It'd be like wanting to pay a lawyer strictly for their court appearances and client meetings. You pay for a business section, even if you're mostly interested in crime and sports, because the biggest crime and sports stories sometimes come out of the business world, and so forth.

S said...

It seems high if I want to subscribe to more than one, which I do. It also seems high in direct contrast to what I paid for the KC Star yesterday, which was exactly zero.

I wouldn't suggest a la carte pricing on the basis of per section, but rather per article. You're right that some days, the article I might want would be in the food section. I don't want to be limited in terms of which section I can access, but I want some kind of payment plan that acknowledges how frequently I read the paper. It's a concept that wouldn't work in a print paper, but it is something that can work in the digital age. Seems to me like something that would ultimately work in the papers' favor as they might hook more subscribers than they would on a one-size-fits-all plan.

I would suggest, though, that the mere fact that a newspaper needs to make money means that the newsgathering process is already (and always has been) driven by market forces. Advertisers want their ads on pages, whether online or in print, that will be viewed by lots and lots of readers. TV news is driven by the quest for ratings, just as print news is driven by the quest for revenue. I'm just wondering if some more creative subscription packages might actually increase revenues. As it stands, I'm not going to subscribe to either of these papers and I seriously doubt I'm the only one.

Dan said...

Oh, you're certainly not the only one. This whole enterprise is in doubt for that reason, which is why papers are searching so frantically for some way to continue making money as their readers have grown accustomed to receiving the fruits of their labor for free.

But per-story pricing is probably even harder to sustain. If it's a dime an article, it will be very hard to do in-depth and long-term reporting on a story that takes months, numerous sources, and deep investigation. Even if a quarter of the population of Kansas City reads the story (and pays for it, rather than just switching browser windows or clearing their cache or using Instapaper), they're looking at, what, ten grand? The story will cost that much or more to produce, let alone turn a profit.

Which means that reporting like that won't be done anymore. It's a lot more profitable -- as Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, etc, have discovered -- to focus on lists of the Top Ten Sexiest Cats of 2013, or Possible Names for Kanye and Kim's Baby. An intern can crank that out in an hour, while a story that's valued the same way about things that are happening in the community might take months.

I mean, you're right about this, in the end: most people aren't going to pay for this product. They've been getting it for free, a lot of the time they want the sexy cat lists they can get anywhere, and the idea you need to pay for the parts of the paper that you don't read every day strikes a lot of people as counter-intuitive.

Investigative journalism is only a viable enterprise, though, if it's directly subsidized by the rest of the paper, and the only way to really afford that is if people have to buy the paper as a single entity. Otherwise, ownership and editorial (which are hardly innocent here) look at the money they can be making if they run nothing but Kimye stories this week and they go where the dollars are.

BellsforStacy said...

Free news sites aren't the problem. The problem is ad revenue isn't generated to the level they want to maintain the pay that they want and the staff that they want. No page loads means they can't charge enough for ads. But stories that get circulated all over get lots of loads get lots of revenue.

The PROBLEM is that most of their news stories don't generate that level of interest. So truly, they need to be investing in better journalism to begin with, if they want to make more money. You can't charge people more for a product that they aren't sure they want to begin with. You have to have people that want your product first.

BellsforStacy said...

I keep re-reading comments and having more thoughts.

Newspapers have always been driven by revenue and what people want to read. "If it bleeds it ledes" didn't come into being in a vaccum.

I quite journalism school for this very reason. I couldn't stand the politicking.

BellsforStacy said...

Sorry, typo.


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