A Determined but Adrift Industry

Is the newspaper industry determined to convince itself that charging for access to its online content is a good idea? To reach that conclusion, it seems determined to overlook all facts, data, and logic about the subject.

For example, here is the schedule for the panels on the paid content subject at the World Association of Newspapersannual forum, which will be held next week in Dublin:

Fifth Session: Content and Business Development on the Internet
Chairman: Andrew Nachison, Director, The Media Center, American Press Institute, USA
Charging for online news, selling news on mobile devices, making the most out of both static and dynamic content – these are some of the issues that will be discussed, through case studies, in this forward looking session
The Jerusalem Post: going for online subscriptions without going for broke
Alan Abbey, Vice President of Electronic Publishing, Jerusalem Post, Israel
FT.com: drawing the line between free content and subscription
Tracy Corrigan, Editor, FT.com, United Kingdom
It’s all about value
Donn Friedman, Assistant Managing Editor, Albuquerque Journal, USA

See anyone on that panel from a newspaper that hasn’t switched to paid access and whose career doesn’t have a vested interest in saying that charging for online content is a good idea? Shouldn’t a panel on this subject be objective or have at least one panelists who is against the issue?

Last thatI knew, the Jerusalem Post had only 1,000 paying subscribers. Published reports say that the Albuquerque Journal has less than 1,600 after years of charging online. JPost charges $9.95 per month and Albuquerque $5 per month for access. Thus those site are making a whopping $120K to $96K annually, which certainly doesn’t cover the costs of running those sites. As for FT.com, most of its reportedly 44,000 paying subscribers aren’t paying for the newspaper site’s general-interest news pages, which are free, but for access to company information (i.e., the FT, like the WSJ, isn’t a general-interest newspaper but a daily business journal).

Borrell Associates‘ research has detailed how none of the 15 U.S. dailies that have been charging for content have been able to generate online paid subscriber numbers equal to more than 2.6% of their print circulation or convert more than 1% of their sites’ unique users into paying subscribers. My own research involve El Pais, El Mundo, South China Morning Post, FT, Le Monde, and Ireland.com shows that none of those major newspaper sites have been able to convert more than 1% of their unique users.

In no case has a general-interest newspaper Web site’s conversion to paid access ever resulted in that revenue paying for the operation of the site.

If WSJ.com Founder Neil Budde were a panelist, he’d tell you that paid subscriptions account for only 60% of WSJ.com revenues and that WSJ.com has never been profitable, even with all its sources of revenue. In March, Neil told the JupiterMedia’s Content conference that it was a bad idea for a general-interest newspaper to switch from free to paid access. Paul Maidment, founding editor of FT.com and now executive editor of Forbes magazine and editor of Forbes.com, told that same conference that he was glad to leave FT.com before its “dumb’ switch to paid.