One of our strategists at Stealing Share is a former journalist who has always amazed me with stories of how, for years, newspapers (including those he worked at) were late developing content-driven web sites, letting the Salon.com and Slate.com’s of the world take the first lead. Those early websites initially just had contact information with one of his editors boasting, “The Internet will never last,” an attitude that helped get news organization into the fix they’re in now.
Those news sites are different now, of course. Just about every newspaper in the world has a content-driven website and, among the largest newspapers in this country, they are some of the most sophisticated, complete with video, links and Twitter accounts.
But as we documented in a recent consumer study, Americans have found mainstream media to be more entertainment than news and that’s part of the reason why newspapers are going to find it difficult increasing revenue by moving to a increasing online focus.
The New York Times, for instance, recently emailed a survey to subscribers asking if they would pay $2.50 a month to access its website ($5 for non-subscribers). You don’t have to be the Amazing Kreskin to know what those answers are going to be: A resounding “No!”
Our nationwide study showed that only 11.2% of all Americans would be willing to pay a subscription fee for online content. And why would they? They already get it for free, especially when the headlines of the New York Times are similar those at other outlets, especially the sites of the cable news networks.
Even if you are a subscriber to the New York Times, would your life be affected if you couldn’t access its website? (You’ll just go to CNN.) The cat, in a essence, has already been let out of the bag. Users have become accustomed to reading online news content for free. (Only the Wall Street Journal started right off the bat charging a fee.)
But there’s more to it than that. The New York Times has seen ad sales on its site drop 8%, and that’s not surprising considering the economy and that advertisers have gotten savvier about spending their online advertising dollars. (Pop-up ads? Nobody clicks on them.) While online subscriptions are intended to make up the losses, they will instead lower viewership, meaning advertisers will be less likely to advertise than they are now.
The New York Times, while one of the most respected news organizations in the world, is still lumped in with the changing view of mainstream media that focuses on pop culture rather than on more important affairs. (We just initiated a military surge in Afghanistan. But you couldn’t read about it through the haze of Michael Jackson and Steve McNair stories.)
NYT is also a national (even global) news organization, which means it’s content is not terribly unique. Granted, it does take news more seriously than most of its competitors, but journalism has changed and the audiences has changed along with it.
I often lament the way news has become entertainment (and two out of every three Americans agree that’s what has taken place). But the sad truth is that news organizations simply responded to what people wanted (or, at least, in a chase for ratings and advertising dollars, what they thought audiences wanted) – which means a fee-based online model for the Times is too late.