I know I’m a day late, but I can’t resist quoting Vivianne Schiller, head of NPR and former head of NYTimes.com, in Newsweek on paid content. Mind you, she is one of the few executives in the industry with real experience on the subject.
Q: While employed by The New York Times, you helped the newspaper stop charging for online content. Now it’s reconsidering. Generally, why do you oppose paying for content?
A: I am a staunch believer that people will not in large numbers pay for news content online. It’s almost like there’s mass delusion going on in the industry—They’re saying we really really need it, that we didn’t put up a pay wall 15 years ago, so let’s do it now. In other words, they think that wanting it so badly will automatically actually change the behavior of the audience. The world doesn’t work that way. Frankly, if all the news organizations locked pinkies, and said we’re all going to put up a big fat pay wall, you know what, more traffic for us. News is a commodity; I’m sorry to say.
Q: But the Times did get people to pay, right?
A: We far exceeded our expectation—225,000 subscribers paid $50 a year, in addition to the home delivery subscribers, who got all of the Web for free. But guess what, that’s $10 million. Instead of 225,000 who pay the $50, let’s say it’s one million subscribers. OK. That’s $50 million a year. That’s not going to save any newspaper. It’s going to kill your advertising base. The numbers don’t work.
I also like her coinage that what we’re trying to protect is not much vaunted investigative journalism but instead “accountability journalism,” which includes beat reporters, watchdogs.
In the New Business Models for News Project, I hope to speculate on how NPR and its affiliates could play a key role enabling local networks of accountability journalism.