Paid journalism’s motto: If you’re good at something, never do it for free

Journalism Online’s Steve Brill recently told CNN that he thinks 10 to 15 per­cent of vis­i­tors to news­pa­per Web sites would be will­ing to pay a price for that privilege.

Let’s say that a news­pa­per in a given month has 1 mil­lion vis­i­tors. It might be that 850,000 of those peo­ple just came there casu­ally through a Google News search, came there once or twice, but aren’t par­tic­u­larly devoted to, let’s say, The Washington Post.

On the other hand, there might 100,000 or 150,000 of those peo­ple who absolutely, pos­i­tively have to see The Washington Post every day. They want to read your col­umn. They want to read the stuff about lobbying.

They want to read the stuff that really makes The Washington Post The Washington Post.

Those peo­ple will be asked to pay some­thing, typ­i­cally get­ting a big dis­count if they already have a print subscription.

Transcript pro­vided by Nieman Journalism Lab.

Apparently, Brill told Neiman’s Zach Seward in June that only 5 to 10 per­cent of users would pay, mean­ing that either he for­got what he said before — per­haps because the num­bers are arbi­trary — or he’s become more opti­mistic about the future of pay­ing for news online.

Michael Masnick at TechDirt wrote about this yes­ter­day, say­ing that Brill’s approach is typ­i­cal of top-down think­ing and that he’s “way over­es­ti­mat­ing the will­ing­ness of online read­ers to pay.” He goes on: “You need to be bot­tom up and explain not why x% will buy, but why the first per­son will buy, and the sec­ond per­son and so on.”

I think, though, that Brill some­what addresses Masnick’s “top-down” con­cerns — if you read beyond the area high­lighted in Neiman’s tran­script. Later in the inter­view, Brill told CNN:

A lot of peo­ple will pay some­thing for that after they’ve sam­pled it, let’s say, five or 10 times. Or a lot of peo­ple will pay for the cov­er­age of the State Department.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, lots of peo­ple will pay for cov­er­age in their home­town, in their home­town news­pa­per of the local zon­ing board or the high school base­ball team, because there is nobody else that’s cov­er­ing that. And I think most Americans under­stand that. And in fact, most Americans have been pay­ing for that kind of cov­er­age all of their lives.

I don’t agree with his impli­ca­tion that peo­ple have been pay­ing for news their whole lives so they should con­tinue to pay (what, out of habit?), but I do think that he’s look­ing from the bot­tom up a lit­tle here. If a few users find at a par­tic­u­lar news site infor­ma­tion they can’t get any­where else, they might slowly start to rely on that source. The value of the source then increases, and so does its traffic.

He’s right in say­ing that local news cov­er­age is unique and that peo­ple real­ize the scarcity and value of that; but try­ing to slap a per­cent­age on it based on mar­ket esti­mates is the wrong approach. That’s a corporate/venture cap­i­tal approach that estab­lishes expec­ta­tions that might be unre­al­is­tic or unachievable.

But he’s on tar­get with the issues. Scarcity is going to be a big deal for the future of news. For exam­ple, the only news­pa­per cov­er­ing my area in-depth — or at least at a level approach­ing in-depth — is the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. You can­not get seri­ous local cov­er­age any­where else. Despite all the com­plaints lev­eled against the news­pa­per for its occa­sional errors and goofs, peo­ple still think of it as the local source for hard news.

Nic Brisbourne puts it this way on paidContent.org:

This is, I think, the real busi­ness model for news com­pa­nies in the future — build a com­mu­nity around news and sto­ries and maybe make a lit­tle in adver­tis­ing, but the real money will come from lever­ag­ing the posi­tion in the com­mu­nity to offer ser­vices no one else can.

What the Chronicle needs to do, what all news out­lets need to do, is deter­mine what they do well and cap­i­tal­ize on that. Perhaps that means get­ting peo­ple to pay for that cov­er­age online; per­haps it means dif­fer­ent ad rates on those pages. Perhaps it means rel­e­gat­ing that cov­er­age to the dead-tree edi­tion (prob­a­bly a fool­ish idea).

Whatever the solu­tion, it’s going to involve mak­ing the most out of what you do best, and it might not involve mak­ing a lot of money right away. But the com­mu­nity of loyal read­ers you build around that scarce con­tent has got to be worth some­thing in the long run.