The impetus toward subscriptions for access and micropayments for single use of online news is growing because online advertising alone cannot sustain the news organizations necessary to provide high quality and broad coverage.
In recent weeks Rupert Murdoch announced News Corp. will begin shifting its newspapers to an online paid model in the next 12 months, starting with Wall Street Journal and then progressively shifting papers such as the New York Post, The Times of London, the Sun and The Australian to a paid model. Dean Singleton followed by indicating MediaNews Group will begin doing the same for its papers, including Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, Detroit News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Salt Lake city Tribune.
Clearly charging for online news is likely to reduce online consumption because of elasticity of demand, but—setting aside the extent to which demand for online news will fall if a price is imposed—moving to a paid model will also creates two common, industrywide challenges.
First, it forces each publisher to bear costs of setting up their own payment system. Secondly, it imposes a heavy burden on consumers. The latter burden results not from having to pay for news, but from the fact that online readers typically do not use only one online news source—unlike the market for print newspapers in which readers typically subscribe to only one paper.
It currently appears that each online newspaper or their corporate parent will set up their own payment systems. The options being most discussed are subscriptions for use or electronic wallets from which to make micropayments for occasional use.
These factors will have a particularly negative affect on the heaviest online news users—voracious and promiscuous readers who seek news from multiple news organizations. If each newspaper sets up its own payment system, for example, these readers will have to have separate payment accounts for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and dozens of other publications they wish to visit.
To deal with this challenge the newspaper industry should seek to create a joint venture or cooperative to solve the problem. Companies should work together to developing a single system that is usable across sites and one that can be extended to handle payments for other types of online content. Such a system would simplify and encourage payment for content, but also develop a new revenue stream by turning the payment system from a cost center to profit center by charging companies for its use.
Free is clearly not the right price for news, but the movement to a paid model will not be as simple as transferring the existing subscription and single copy payment models for print newspapers to their online counterparts. Seeking payment online creates new challenges and opportunities that will require new thinking about how payments are made and more cooperation across the industry.