Is the problem paid content or the way we do it?

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Is the problem paid content or the way we do it?
Is the problem paid content or the way we do it?

With reports that the New York Times is to pull down the pay wall surrounding its op-ed columnists, and suggestions Murdoch will head towards all free content at the Wall Street Journal, the question is whether the idea of paid text content is dying.

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 argues that it is. The web and digital media have generated an overabundance of content — “not just a spike in high-quality content but, more disruptively, and even larger spike in “pretty good” or “good enough” content”.

In other words, people will not pay if something which is adequate for their needs is available free. The other side of the coin is that readers will not accept the merely adequate or good, if the excellent is also free. That should mean a concentration of ad revenue and other revenue earning on the excellent sites if they demolish the wall.

But while advertising may compensate well for the loss of subscription payments, it is not going to replace the revenue streams lost lost from declining print sales. So, I wonder whether paid content is really dying or whether it is more a question of getting the technology right.

Subscriptions are a hassle and expensive if you make only occasional use of a site while one-off payments are often pitched too high and are also a hassle. We need something like a virtual Oyster card (the Transport for London pre-payment card) which can make small payments.

As it is not connected to a bank account, the security issues for the user are about the same as stuffing some £10 notes in your back pocket. If, say, 5p per article was deducted from the card by participating sites, that would seem fair, especially if the payment to the site was capped at say 50p a day.

That way it would be fair alternative to paying 70p for the paper. Oyster cards calculate when it becomes cheaper to pay the day pass rate rather than for individual journeys so something similar should be possible. I do not think we should be too ready to write off the paid content model just because no one has get found a way to make “loose change” work on the web.

The micro-payments idea has serious problems in addition to the technology. In the UK we have, for example, the Times, Independent, Telegraph and Guardian competing for a similar readers. It would be hard for any of them to move to micro-payments alone and, as British Airways has discovered, it is dangerous to collude with rivals.

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