Paying in change

The headlines about newspaper economics make our industry sound like a fiefdom, with all the weak serfs fleeing toward the protective walls built of $100 bills.

One in 10 U.S. daily newspapers now has a paywall or subscription service.

The L.A. Times has a membership program. Gannett plans to leave only USA Today in the haystacks of free content outside the castle walls, while the NYT cut its number of free articles from 20 to 10 each month. Meanwhile, legislators in Missouri have plans to eliminate tax subsidies for newspapers in the state.

Depending on who you read, the ratio of lost print dollars to digital dollars gained could be as bad as 7:1 or an even more stark 22:1. Yikes. Put differently, for every $11 a print newspaper earns, the publication gains about $1, not enough to buy a Coke but just enough to buy a song on iTunes.

The NYT has been lauded for its effective conversion to an online paid service, but the bite-size iTunes pricing model stands as a potential solution. The explosion of apps has shown that, if nothing else, people pay for an experience that is properly packaged and priced. Which leads us to the most basic of marketing principles: the 5 P’s.

Any discussion of journalism economics must incorporate a breakdown of:

People
Product
Presentation
Pricing
Promotion

The most familiar, of course, is product. Everyone knows that journalists write articles, take photos and produce videos. Sometimes there’s an infographic or an interactive timeline. We create content, right?

No, we create value, specifically, value added to information that exists for anyone. We shape and mold available information. We talk to people. Journalists know their audiences — not well enough, but we’re getting better at reaching out.

Humans possess a unique capacity to tell stories, an attribute not often found in the animal kingdom. We cherish stories and construct our identities around past memories, present experiences and future plans. All involve stories.

Journalism needs to shift faster toward a digital future if we hope to continue to see days when our stories inform, entertain and beget change for our readers, even if they’re paying in coins to read them.

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