Pay-to-read on the internet

The newspaper industry has taken a deep breath and decided to jump into the waters, putting their content behind pay-to-read walls on the web.

I think they are going to get badly burnt unless they cooperate closely with each other.

In my case I do read a lot of news on the web – both the conventional newspaper web sites and special interest blogs that report on technology, for example. But I read on the web because its convenient – while waiting for a report to run at work, for example. The papers hope to get people using micro-payment systems (like iTunes) to read their content. But iTunes is only one of a very small number of sites that I visit to buy music. There is no way I am going to subscribe to several newspaper websites on the off-chance I might want to read one news item. So the pool of readers for each publication will shrink, reducing their on-line advertising revenues further.

If I can’t read it on the net, my alternative is to watch TV or buy a newspaper. Both alternatives are more attractive to me. It’s not that I object to paying to read news per se (we have subscriptions to a large number of printed periodicals), but the psychology of pay-per-read just doesn’t work. Either I can go elsewhere and get the news free, or I buy a whole newspaper with many articles to read for a few tens of cents to an Euro or so. Why would I want to pay to access each article individually, especially if I then discover it wasn’t really as interesting as I expected when I paid for it?

And if I have pay-to-view accounts, fiddle about setting up one for each site (or go though the hassle of making a PayPal payment each time I want to read an article for a site I haven’t set up), it is never going to work like iTunes. We are talking about a large number of competing vendors offering similar products. The iTunes equivalent to that would be if each record company offers it’s own pay-per-download service: it just isn’t attractive to the end-user if the alternative is to visit iTunes and download music from all the major labels.

Perhaps there’s a market for an established portal owner, such as Google or Yahoo, to offer a central subscription service for many newspapers for a flat monthly fee irrespective of which papers the customer accesses? The fee would be passed on to the contributing publishers based on the number of hits each page gets. That might be worth considering, if the fee was acceptable? And it might improve the overall quality of reporting, since each provider would be in direct competition with the others for page-hits.