Tumblin’ down

Last week, I had a brief hallway conversation about a New York Times announcement that it would begin charging for access to its online content in 2011.

Robert Frost came to mind: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” My friend shot back: “Yes; it’s called the Internet.”

In the time since, I’ve been thinking about his answer. This is the week the Mythical Apple Tablet became real, and while I don’t think the unicorn will save publishing, its debut fosters conversations about what will.

There are models for paid digital content, more often in professional and data-driven markets, less so when it comes to news. Where the consumer sees value, price becomes less of a barrier. Professional information typically carries with it more clearly articulated value.

This week, we learned that three months into a paid-content initiative, Newsday had signed up a total of 35 subscribers. Arguably, this is a newspaper owned by the same folks who operate Cablevision and the Knicks, so maybe we should not have expected much.

When I see results this stark, though, I think the problem isn’t platform, or price, but perceived value. The Internet is not killing Newsday. Newsday is killing Newsday. Under a string of owners, the paper has run away from Long Island and tried to become somewhat New York, somewhat national.

We have been getting New York and national news for free since the invention of radio (speaking as a native of Massachusetts, the New York part is getting on my nerves). If Newsday could offer a truly unique voice – “the voice of Long Island” – and deliver on its promise, the wall might hold.

At the Times, its national and international voice may be distinctive and valued enough to emulate the success of the Wall Street Journal in business journalism. If so, the wall holds.

But I don’t think there are many more examples of newspapers and magazines hoarding what is now a commodity and hoping that people will pay for it. For both newspapers and magazines, hope (with a wall) is not a business strategy.

Edited January 29 to add: Newsday’s Cablevision parent put out a statement yesterday indicating that the number of paid subscribers is not the only reason they have a pay wall. The also want to help sell Cablevision Internet service.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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