I came across a tweet today that triggered an interesting series of thoughts. Who are the customers of newspapers and will online pay walls keep them out or in? Here is the tweet:
From @boatload on Twitter “”newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they’re critical for informing their customers” #shirky”
Is there a difference between serving the public and serving paying customers from the newspaper’s perspective. I do believe that a newspaper’s business model depends on serving the needs of it’s advertisers. Does it serve the advertisers for a typical town/city newspaper to only “inform” their customers? In print these days, newspapers actually talk about their readership rather than circulation. Readership assumes that on average x number of people read each newspaper circulated. So, for a newspapers with a circulation of 100,000, their readership number might be something like 280,000 (or 2.8 readers per paper). That number is what newspapers promote to their advertisers. What is more valuable to advertisers: The 100,000 paid circulation customers or the other 180,000 people that chose to pick up and read someone else s copy?
What about the content created for a typical town newspaper? Is the content targeted to inform a paid audience? Or do editors find content that is relevant to the larger community audience. Clearly, unless a newspaper is known for niche content only, it creates content for the larger community rather than only their paying customers. Obviously, the best strategy to grow paying customers is to create a product that appeals the broadest possibly audience.
Now let’s talk about pay walls. To begin with pay walls, will force newspaper back to tracking their audience according to subscription numbers and not readership. Online pay walls don’t lend themselves to sharing content as one can do with a printed copy of a newspaper. For local newspapers, can a pay walled online web-site generate sufficient value based on broad community based content? If so, what prevents free online alternatives from within the the community taking advantage of the low cost of online publishing? Even if the start-up product was inferior to start, it could easily eat away valuable audience from a pay walled newspaper site.
This leads to the final question. Can a pay walled community newspaper ultimately survive? If so, what conditions would need to be met in the face of a competitor based on free access?
What do you think?