The act of suddenly charging people for something they’ve always enjoyed free seems downright absurd.  And yet that’s what will likely happen when major media organisations begin charging for their online news content.

Here in Australia, both News Limited and Fairfax Media – which control the majority of outlets across the print and online spheres, amongst others – have indicated their plans to impose fees for their popular news websites.  Neither said when or how they’ll do this.

There was an outcry, with a number of arguments against the plan and a few in favour of it.

Now the New York Times looks to be one of the first major organisations to implement a payment model, according to reports.  It could be just months away.  A poll on social media blog Mashable shows more than 60 per cent of respondents definitively opposed to paying for the Times’ online content, while only 6 per cent said they would happily pay.

That’s the New York Times – one of the most highly regarded mastheads in the world.

Across the board, some of the common responses from people opposed to paying for online news include:

  • Why pay for something that’s always been free?
  • There are plenty of other sites that offer similar content
  • Quality is lacking
  • The rise of citizen journalism means a declining number of people are turning to major outlets for news

On the other hand, quality news is incredibly expensive to produce.  Readers demand the latest information faster, which requires a huge amount of resources.  Advertising revenue is just not enough to subsidise this.

They’re all reasonable points.  So what needs to happen for users to accept paid news websites?  In my opinion, it’s most (or all) of the following:

  • Popular websites need to dramatically boost the quality of their content
  • The majority of websites need to agree to charge for content in a uniform or standardised way
  • Consumption habits need to change – fast
  • Pricing structures need to be reasonable
  • The industry needs to somehow alter the perception of online news content, much in the same way people’s views have begun to change about music piracy

That certainly won’t happen overnight.

How this plays out will be interesting and the decisions made about if, when and how to charge for online news could seriously hurt the media industry (at a time when it can ill afford anymore instability).

Regardless of what happens in coming months and years, there will always be free web services run by state-subsidised organisations like the ABC and BBC.  How can you compete with that?

15 Years of Fame