Should online news be free?

Sven Krumrey

Which services are we really willing to pay for? Ever since the internet found its way into our homes, there have been debates about free and paid content. The problem: Unlike physical products we can touch and use, online services feel quite intangible. And while most of us have free or cheap access to music, thanks to YouTube and streaming services, publishing companies are unwilling to give up the fight just yet. Currently, subscription-based paywalls are their weapon of choice, but the majority of users are not amused! So what should successful online journalism look like?

What's new in the world?

When I was young, everything was much simpler. My parents had subscribed to the local newspaper and a weekly magazine that covered more important issues with deeper analyses. This setup pretty much covered everything from the local dog breeders' club to global politics. The weekend edition frequently weighed up to a pound so subscribers could actually feel what they spent their money on. Subscriptions had been the way to go for over 20 years and nobody ever thought about alternatives because there was no competition. That articles were always one day old barely mattered. This went on for many years until the world got smaller and more information-dense!

Nowadays, yesterday's news are old hat and hyperlinks or Google Search help quickly expand on a topic. Publishing companies took notice and felt the consequences: Sales are down by up to 80% and smaller publishers either went out of business, merged with rivals or significantly cut down their staff. The initial strategy of offering a handful of online articles for free to foster print sales has failed. The internet took on a life of its own and, while full-fledged lead articles still remain mostly absent, there are now a myriad of free news outlets available. Naturally, readers quickly warmed up and kicking back in your favorite chair while swiping through today's multimedia-enriched news on your tablet has become part of the morning routine for many – newspapers are a nice to but not a must have!

What has been giving publishers worry crinkles lately is their customers' payment morale. A recent poll shows only 60 percent would consider paying for journalistic content online. 30 percent believe digital content should be free. Publishers also tend to overestimate the potential revenue generated by ads. When taking into account that 50% of users are already paying for streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime, the picture becomes even more complex. Apparently, users are making a strong distinction between entertainment (worth paying for) and news, considered by many hardly subscription-worthy. As an educated citizen, I find this shocking! Still, it's too early to pass the buck to the readers.

Relaxed newspaper reading – what could be better?

In many cases, the transition into the digital age didn't go smoothly for publishers. Readers are frequently exposed to confusing payment models, technical issues and uninspired designs. Some publishers are resorting to loud and flashy headlines or bizarre exaggerations to woo customers. On top, prices are simply thought as too high by many readers. Why would you pay almost the same amount for an online or PDF edition that you'd pay for the print version when publishers save big on print, distribution and logistics costs? Many publishers have significantly cut down their editorial staff and it shows! Sure, it is possible for a newspaper to exist solely on agency reports with as little self-contribution as possible, but that's certainly no recipe to wean readers into your brand. Sites that offer the bare informational minimum are a dime a dozen and so are entertainment portals. Readers long for personally relevant, curated information.

While some are predicting the end of traditional publishing houses altogether, others demand a profound change in thinking. There are ideas to bundle and offer several papers at a fixed price, a model that has had some success in the magazine market. A "Netflix" for news may win over skeptics and stimulate sales. But long-lasting disputes between the various publishers are a serious roadblock and there are fears that the perceived value of individual papers could suffer greatly if offered as part of a bundle. Doubters like to point out the underwhelming success of music portals and the meager royalty fees. Other magazines try to offer more current news or provide their readers with trenchant daily recaps and exclusive content, like videos or comprehensive in-depth articles. Still others abandoned print altogether and focus on their online presence – with yet uncertain results.

These surely are exciting times for journalism. My hope is that we'll still have access to a diverse and varied media landscape in the future. After all, no functioning democracy can exist on a mere handful of, sometimes government-controlled, news outlets alone. And what would cozy weekend mornings be without local news?

What I would like to know: Are you prepared to pay for online news? Do you already have a subscription?

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