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Why Pay for News Online

February 19, 2010

How I got wrangled into becoming a paying subscriber

I recently started subscribing to news articles on a website. There’s no print edition, it’s just a website. It actually started, a long time ago, as a completely free site, but now some of its content is behind a pay wall. I’m not going to talk about whether the business model is successful or if they can make money, but simply explain my reasoning for subscribing.

Free content is like a lasso for new readers

The website in question does very well at bringing in readers. Not only is there a large amount of free content going up daily (there are usually more free articles than paywall content each day) but all premium content is made available to the public after only a month. This is a very recent change; only a few months ago, content was only made public 90 days after the publication date. So when I came to the site, I was able to get a large sampling of what the premium content would be like if I subscribed. Then I started reading forward, starting from the previous year and going through as many articles as I could before hitting the paywall.

This is one of the best ways to get new readers to subscribe. Whether it’s giving readers five free articles a month or releasing old content to the public, websites with paywalls need to allow readers to see a sampling of their premium content. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise — in fact, it’s elementary to most websites with paywalls. But it’s especially important for content providers with timely information. As I read through the old content, I found myself wanting the most up-to-date news. Not month old stuff, not 90-day old stuff.

Old news

I don't want to be this old by the time I get the news

The niche is strong with this website

Another thing that got me to subscribe was the lack of other publishers in the same category. I’d googled around, found a lot of out-of-date and badly written blogs, along with one other comparable site. But I wanted more. When I couldn’t find anything, I kept coming back to the premium stuff. Finally, beaten, I looked at the subscription prices. I found, much to my surprise, that they were entirely reasonable and had a number of different pricing options.

Not a lot of online publishers can claim to be one of very few players in a field. But the advantage that niche publishers have over general ones is significant. Recently, in my own personal blogobubble (like the blogosphere, but limited to what I read), I’ve been seeing a focus on local news websites. For example, the Nieman Journalism Lab linked to this post a few days ago, about a local news site gaining traffic by going more local.

Turning local

Will this mean that newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian will go more local, focusing on New York and London? Probably not — they’re international brands. But the more niche you are, not the more niches you fill, the more reason for people to subscribe to your site. Niche doesn’t always have to mean a small market, either. If you’ve consistently got the most articles on, say, World of Warcraft, you can do pretty well for yourself. It’s not a huge market, but it’s big enough to build a site around. This particular site is free, but it’s likely the kind of page that could set up a reasonably successful paywall.

So while in the past, newspapers have focused a lot on having a broad appeal, the way people interact with publishers online is changing this, making content providers get more specialized. Here’s an example from a different industry. Book publishers decide the markup on a given book based on how willing buyers will be to pay a large sum of money. The cost to make the book is usually not the deciding factor. So a book by a politics insider known only in Ottawa and by high-level Canadian politicians won’t have wide appeal, but it will have a very strong following among people in the know. Newspapers should follow suit and take advantage of people willing to pay large markups for specific content.

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