While the latest study by the Pew centers and Knight Foundation provides a comprehensive look at “how people learn about their local community” , one of the most troubling findings is how little people value a primary provider of that information.
More than two-thirds of surveyed respondents told pollsters that if their hometown newspaper disappeared, it would not seriously hurt their ability to keep up with the news. This finding is telling because it demonstrates that first and foremost newspapers have done a poor job of illustrating the value of their reporting. As a paid content advocate, I would argue that a decade+ of giving content away for free online has brought newspapers to this point. To say that putting news content online for free has tremendously devalued that content would be an understatement. Readers have been conditioned to believe that newspapers’ best content is not worth paying for. Is worth nothing. Nada. Zip. Zlich. Zero.
“The assumption seems to be that this information is a commodity, that it’s free and it’s omnipresent,” Tom Rosenstiel, principal author of the Project for Excellence in Journalism report told The Los Angeles Times. “That may not be true, particularly with this civic information that newspapers are primary in producing. It’s quite possible, if the newspaper disappeared, that the information would disappear along with it.”
Rosenstiel links what should be contradictory concepts in one sentence. Even in the most simplest of terms, a commodity is a thing of value. In economic terms, consumers pay a price for what they value. A free commodity is an oxymoron. And yet by failing to charge for online content, newspapers have been peddling a free commodity for years.
The Pew study should serve as the latest warning siren to beleaguered newspaper executives. As the Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey writes “newspapers could do a lot more to tell their unique stories to the public.” True. But they also need to send a message that their content is highly valuable. That it truly is a commodity. That the content is worth paying for. Charging for online content restores the value proposition that has been obliterated by FREE content.
Watch the last 30 seconds of this humorous but biting commentary on student journalists today (you can start around the 2:35 mark). The fact is that not even journalism students are instinctively willing to pay for news content because of the free online alternatives.
If newspapers value their content so little that they don’t even ask the reader to pay for it, that they aren’t even willing to put any price tag on the toils of their labor, why should we expect the audience to find value in that work? Thus, newspapers are faced with an audience who cares so little for their product that they feel they would not be phased without them. Newspapers need to show the public otherwise. But first newspapers need to value their own product before they expect others to do the same.