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

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.