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How To Get Readers To Pay: Carrots Vs Sticks

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The big debate over pay walls is getting down to the fine points; as opposed to grand theological, existential questions, it’s really more of a sharper dispute over the method of getting users to pay. Do you dangle carrots and hope the support follows? Or brandish a stick — perhaps a variety of sticks of different lengths? The debate played along those lines at the Paley Center on Tuesday, with the make ’em pay side represented by Steve Brill, cofounder of startup Journalism Online, which promises to help news outlets charge for their content, and Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of non-profit NPR, arguing for making pay optional.

The most vocal panelists — the group included Buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis and media consultant Shelly Palmer — backed up Schiller’s contention that having a formal pay wall will only drive consumers away. In defense of the pay model, Brill contended that businesses need to run on direct money, and advertising and promotions won’t keep the lights on. Plus, he and others dismissed softer measures of coaxing money through online tip jars as being hard to count on.

Developing the pay habit: People have been exchanging cash for newspapers and magazines for decades, they just need to get back into the habit of doing so online, Brill said. In a conversation after the panel, Brill told me that the pay wall isn’t the only way to achieve that: “We believe in giving publishers a variety of options, including donations and bundling online and print. But some have this religious idea that people will be offended if you try to get them to pay for the news product. I’m just asking, ‘Who really knows?'”

Brill also dismissed the notion expressed by pay-wall opponent Michael Wolfe that subscription and newsstand sales aren’t what supported the news historically — that it was advertising all along and social-media sites and Craigslist have demolished that model. “That is not across the board,” Brill said. “There has never been a news organization that’s been able to exist on ads alone. Many newspapers have relied heavily on circulation revenue. By putting it all online for free, they abandoned the core print product and the revenue that came with it.”

Audience participation: During the session, Schiller spoke about the experiment with pay walls when she was general manager of The short-lived TimesSelect, which put archives and columnists behind an online pay wall, “made $10 million, but I don’t think it was worth it.” Afterward, she stressed the need to get revenue directly from consumers, but said that at a time when there so many alternative news sources, companies had to tread very gingerly. “I think trying to force a change in audiences

5 Responses to “How To Get Readers To Pay: Carrots Vs Sticks”

  1. Charlie Terry

    Papers are failing because their market has changed and they have not. Because the model is failing, they have to cut back in expenses hurting their quality. No matter how much passion they may have for journalism it won't make everyone quit the Internet…or go back to 8-track tapes or trains instead of planes. Paper is failing because of the inherent aspects of the medium and the drastic cut in quality.

    The content is recycled AP content in papers (available online) and the perceived bias left or right reduces their "happy" audience by half. Combine that with the fact that paper is an awful medium for stocks & charts, classified and "Extra-Extra" news.

    Paper works for nostalgia and the twilighting generation who like the papers won't change. Journalists need to find another model. Hope, Murdoch nor the unions can save a dead business model.

  2. I have been a newspaper reader for 40 years.

    The problem with today's papers is the type of news that is reported. It is all AP news wire stuff with very little analysis, and this type of news is free on the web. Do I really want to pay to find out the recent going ons between Jon and Kate. Or what celebrity got caught doing something. Or the new mommy blog. This is the direction our mid size newspaper is going, and if I didn't want something to read during breakfast, I would cancel it. So why would I pay for this product online?

    The flip side you have Barrons which I read every week and would happily pay for due to its well written articles on business.

    In between, you have the Wall Street Journal that appears to be covering more world news than business news since its acquisition and is losing its value to me as a reader as well.

    So it comes back to the quality of the product. And unfortunately most city newspapers have dumbed down their product so badly to save money that an online version of that same product is not worth paying for.

  3. Moktarama

    Interesting : no allusion whatsoever is made about the content, when satirists are more cruel than ever about the magnificents bias in modern journalism…

    In France, where historical medias are falling at quite the same pace than in the US, the only real magazine launch success lately is XXI : this magazine happens to be 300 pages, ad-free, direct actuality-deconnected, composed uniquely with long (like, 10 full pages) inquiries and reportages, done by journalists whom are asked expressively to place themselves in their production (the goal being to assume the inherent subjectivity of every human communication) , and, last but not least, trimestrial and sold 20 $ .

  4. I love these phony conversations among a privileged circle. This going to be too truthful and hurtful and will only be funny by the denials that come after it.

    <i>Developing the pay habit: People have been exchanging cash for newspapers and magazines for decades, they just need to get back into the habit of doing so online, Brill said.</i>

    The way newspapers and magazines were historically sold were on busy street corners in major metropolitan cities – extra, extra, read all about it. As these neighborhood turned majority non-White, the privileged editors at these newspapers targeted the sprawling suburbs and focused on negative reporting or no reporting of inner city non-Whites.

    So let's cut the bull here – the major city newspapers and these non-diverse editorial staff thought they can be dismissive of the inner city demographic and began chasing White flight audience out in the suburbs with gas guzzling newspaper trucks and negative reporting of "those people" in "those neighborhood" and let's cut the bull.

    The rising cost of fuel, lack of intense high traffic corners in the suburbs and Internet replacing newspaper subscriptions did these privileged executive editors in.

    I just got back from Asia, print is doing good there because they didn't abandoned their metropolitan base. Same goes for India and Brazil and other markets. So let's be honest about what really happened in America and stop these phony conversations that are non-diverse to begin with