The “folly” of free news online

Replicating the print product online exactly is madness – because the digital audience wants something different. Not looking at digital data and letting it influence the news agenda in the newsroom because you believe journalists know what the audience want is madness. Assuming that just because people tell you they don’t buy the paper because they read it online means they’re reading your content exactly the same way online as in print is madness.

Superb piece by David Higgerson on the supposed folly of giving away news content for free, and the bigger issues that make it hard for newspapers to make money online.

The idea that print news organisations could have solved all their current woes by charging online from the start is seductive, but – as David says – it’s also wrong. There are plenty of other things papers got wrong in the early days that are causing long-term ill effects: lack of archives & link rot caused by crazy self-deleting CMSes; refusal to participate in standard web link economy; shovelling content to the web without making it web-friendly; assuming print editors understood web audiences without giving them any tools or training to help them do so.

Lack of early investment online is a less seductively simple explanation for current difficulties attracting and monetizing an audience, but laying it all at the feet of a failure to charge is telling a simple story in place of a complex one, and missing a big opportunity to learn.

Edited to add: via Adam Tinworth, this piece on separating print and digital is an excellent read on another area of local print news’s shaky moves online.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

2 thoughts on “The “folly” of free news online”

  1. I think another weakness of the “original sin” hypothesis is that it leans on a fictional model of a monolithic and monopolistic news industry.

    That is, if newspapers had only charged for digital content from day one, then readers would have simply forked over their subscription pennies, and would still be doing so today.

    Er, no. The rise of the digital economy carried with it low- or no-cost digital competitors, both in the realm of “pure news” (most notably public broadcasters and television networks, both of which were able to extend their product offering to the web) and, of course, for non-news newspaper products (classifieds, job postings, crosswords, horoscopes, advertising coupons, etc., etc., etc.).

    The reality of what this competitive environment wrought should also be a warning for paywall builders and advocates. A paywall does not only not preclude the existence of rival, free sources of similar content, but actually provides an incentive for others to develop competitive products that lack user subscription charges. If all newspapers were paywalled from day one, it wouldn’t have prevented, say, the Huffington Post from being born, and might in fact have driven more people to it more quickly.

    1. Thanks for brining this up Mary, a lovely conclusion. I never used to get why people read the paper but now with Australias very new, online, and simmering media outlets I now think I understand. Its nice to have a choice for a change.

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