Nickel-and-dimed to death

Alan Mutter, advocate of charging for content, debates me on the point in the LA Times. I made my arguments about why pay won’t work; Alan responded; and then, over objections from the paper that I was breaking the format, I demanded the opportunity to rebut the rebuttal in an effort to get to more specifics in this unending and highly speculative, theoretical debate. I’ll quote from that because this is what I want to say to many of the believers in the pay meme:

…[Y]ou find many ways to say that papers should charge and that readers should pay, without saying why, without addressing the value to the public and the competitive economic environment for the publisher, and without getting specific about the complete financial projections of your model. You’re a Silicon Valley start-up executive, Alan, and I wonder whether you’ve ever seen a successful business plan built on shoulds.

You also bring up some common red herrings. No one I know is saying that the blogosphere will replace the press. Please show me the links to the respected bloggers and journalists who say that. I know none.

You do, however, assume that journalism will come only from institutions of the scale of the incumbents. There, we disagree (and we’ll discuss that tomorrow). I believe that the news will come from networks of various parties contributing, gathering, sharing news and information for different reasons.

The Wall Street Journal example is also a bit of a red herring. We should view the pay model with suspicion precisely because that is the only example ever raised. I repeat: Its subscription fees are paid on expense accounts. And I would love to see a full accounting of the revenue from joint subscriptions — print and online — that are attributed to each medium. I’d also like to see the cost of subscriber acquisition marketing, churn management and customer relations. Again, let’s look at the complete financial projections.

So, Alan, I’d like you to respond to the specific business questions I raise above and get specific yourself: How much do you think a paper could charge? For what? How many subscribers would you forecast? What would the impact on audience size and advertising inventory be? What would the impact on search-engine optimization be? What do you project as the cost of subscriber acquisition?

You say that “smart people” will pay for “unique and valuable information.” How much of that can a paper produce in a day? For that matter, how much of that do papers produce now? As I travel across the country, I have been picking up wafer-thin local papers — on paper — that are filled with Associated Press and syndicated copy, rewrites of commodity news I already know, fluffy features and “news” that began life as press releases. Now is the time to be bluntly honest: What is the real value of newspapers as they are made today? What are they worth?

That is asking the question from the customer’s point of view, and that is where this discussion must start.

Alan’s response here.