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Paywall anyone?

Submitted by on Wednesday, 17 March 2010 No Comment

The worst news for the newspaper industry out of today’s the Pew Internet and American Life Project report was not that 82 percent of those polled said they’d go to another site rather than pay to read the news.

The fact that 65 percent of the respondents have no favorite online news site was not the most chilling finding.

The deeply troubling part was where the report said that convincing online readers to pay “may require specialization and investment by news organizations.”

Eek. Investment. Isn’t that a four-letter word? It certainly was back in the days when online divisions were begging for people and equipment but the pleas fell on deaf ears because shareholders were demanding exorbitant profits.

Yes, times are tough for the newspaper industry – and for much of the rest of mainstream media and broadcast news as well. Despite that – and largely due to shedding workers faster than a snake sheds skin – newspapers still are making profits. Let me repeat: Newspapers still are making profits.

No, they’re not partying like it’s 1999 and raking it in like in the 30-percent glory days – but, then, they didn’t expect that to last forever, did they? Never mind. I know the answer.

Newspaper accounting is a different animal from normal accounting. It’s kind of like the federal budget. In Washington, if an agency doesn’t get the increase it expects, officials start decrying “budget cuts.” At a newspaper, if the profit doesn’t increase by as much as budgeted then the sky starts to fall.

Except this time clouds really are tumbling, and after years of not-so-benign budgetary neglect it’s going to take a mighty big umbrella to fend off the fallout.

Oh, it’s still do-able if newspapers would invest in the people who can run the technology – a lot of them and not just one person with a plan of working him into the ground.

It’s possible if executives would quit condescending to their own blogging sites and comment mechanisms and instead develop the community by devoting resources to moderation instead of writing those areas off as a necessary web 2.0 cess pool.

It’s even likely if companies on serving readers as they want to be served – full RSS feeds and newsletters that make the transition from desktop to mobile and back again seamless would be good starts.

Looking strictly at financial solutions first, though, will not work. Identify the audience, build the product, and then sell it.

A paywall would work in only one situation: If a local newspaper could convince all competing television stations and all community bloggers to charge as well. Anyone see that happening?

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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