Redefining which content has value

by John Einar Sandvand on January 17, 2012 · 8 comments

Looking for ways to make users pay for digital content, many editors consistently make a wrong assumption: That stories from the printed newspaper have higher value than the web stories.

I have read it numerous times: Interviews with chief editors who present the fact that a story was printed in the newspaper as the very definition of users’ willingness to pay for the same story in a digital version.

I think the assumption in most cases is wrong.  That a story has been printed in the newspaper has little bearing in itself on whether there is a willingness to pay for that particular content in digital form.

One big challenge of introducing user payment for digital content is to decide which content is premium and which content should be free.

Making this decision is very hard – as it goes to the very core of defining what type of journalism constitute real value to the readers.

The easy way out is to say as many chief editors do: The content from the printed paper is premium, the online content is free.

And why shouldn’t we think like that? People have after all through decades shown that they are willing to pay for the content in the printed paper. Therefore the argument is convenient: Let us make the same content available to them online for a charge, and they will be willing to pay.


But as a result of this way of thinking, most attempts at asking users to pay for digital content, for instance on iPad, so far are more or less replicas of the printed paper.

It is time to end this way of thinking.

In the long run the distinction between premium and free content cannot be defined by what has been found worthy of being printed in the newspaper. One reason is that much of the value of a printed newspaper is in how content has been packaged and put together for that specific format. As the content is being split up on digital platforms, the value proposition changes and different rules apply.

Therefore we need to find a new way of distinguishing between premium and free content – and that distinction can no longer be defined by platforms, but by the distinctive qualities in the content itself.

Why is this? Because when studying their own content in depth and trying to make readers pay online, many editors will find the following to be true:

  • Parts of the content in the printed newspaper looses its value when disaggregated from the print package and presented in a digital version
  • Parts of the content that has been produced “free” for the web site actually provides great value for readers – and in fact have the potential to be treated as premium content instead of free.

This being said, it is easy to understand that many news organizations have chosen a replica of their printed product as the first attempt at making users pay.  The strategy in fact makes sense – at this stage. After all readers have a clear picture of what product a newspaper is – and may be willing to pay for the convenience of receiving it in a different format. Also most newspapers are organized primarily with the printed paper as the main output.

But now is the time to move on. Premium content should be defined across platforms – and with qualities that makes it truly unique no matter where it is published. At the same time we need to take into consideration also the other factors influencing people’s willingness to pay.

Among media companies not just choosing the replica model we basically see three ways of distinguishing between premium and free content:

  • The meter model – allows free access to a specific number of articles per month and starts charging after the level has been reached. This is the model used by The New York Times, which reportedly now has more than 300.000 subscribers. The meter model does not try to distinguish as much between which content is premium and which content is free. Rather the underlying assumption is that all content is premium, but that readers can get some of it for free anyway.
  • The freemium model – defines some types of content as free and other as premium, depending on topics or qualities. This is for instance the model used by Wall Street Journal, Hamburger Abendblatt and the highly successful Swedish news site Aftonbladet.
  • The paywall – charging for all content, no matter where it is published. This is basically the strategy of The Times in London. A

This discussion is primarily based on the freemium model. What are some of the qualities that could define premium content in this model?

It of course depends on the brand in question and how it is positioned in its market.

But I think many editors will find that they need to develop new content formats to succeed with user payment. This is necessary to make sure the content is sufficiently unique, deep, engaging, useful or entertaining to make readers think they cannot be without it.

Some of the questions that need to be answered:

  • Is the content truly unique? Can you find more or less the same other places – or is this really the only place to get this type of content and quality? Is the content in a format that makes it unique?
  • Is the content useful? Are readers being helped in achieving their personal goals, like getting in better shape or improving their finances? Will readers feel they will be better off in their life with the content?
  • Is it engaging people?  In today’s world of social media only content that engage people have real value.
  • Is it convenient to get to the content if you are willing to pay?  Is in fact being a paying customer much easier that to be a freeloader? Is the media company making it so convenient for readers that it is just “too damned easy to pay”?
  • Is the payoff clear?  Do you immediately understand what extra value paying for the content gives you?  Is is deep enough? Entertaining enough? Or just another copy of what you will find on any other web site?

Newspaper readership will continue to drop in most markets in the years to come. As this happens, defining premium content in terms of whether it has been printed on paper or not will become increasingly less relevant.

We need a new definition.

So how, then, should we define premium content in the future? What are your thoughts?



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  • Ivpaul42

    You’re making this much more complicated than it needs to be.
    Premium content is the local, exclusive stories that readers cannot get anywhere else, but are important to them because those stories are about their neighbors and the community they live in. Free content is the stuff readers can also find from other sources.

  • geir stene

    “Content” is a wide definition and present and future models will vary, depending on what we are looking at. For news I would point at the fact that readers don’t understand the differences between the news paper, the web news, the “iPad paper” and the mobile phone news view. (if there are any). One of the most important elements is to produce different content (different products!) for the various platforms. Secondly, the newsorg. need to apply various business models for the various products. Thirdly news org. need to develop improved commercial products, made for the various products/ platforms. The new revenue streams will most likely be more complex and consist of several smaller sources. This indicates that a future news business will have to expand the business line and become producers of content they never did. (audio/ visual etc.)

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