According to the Financial Times:
“When people really want or need something, they will pay for it, one way or another. If today’s publishers cannot convince their readers to do so, they will be overtaken by others that can.”
Setting aside the “should we or shouldn’t we?” questions biting at the ankles of Paid Content, let’s stipulate, for the moment, that eventually we’ll all pay in some way for news content. It’s a big assumption, currently untested in a major market. But making that assumption prompts what, I think, is a more interesting question:
Is news content gasoline, or is it bottled water?
That is, is online news a necessary commodity that people will begrudgingly pay for, because they have to, or is it a necessary commodity that’s packaged in a way that finds a happy and willing customer base?
The growth of bottled water in the past decade — a commodity available free pretty much everywhere in the developed world — is the story of consumers willingly shelling out real dollars in exchange for convenience and branding. Can the news industry — which also sells a largely commoditized product — learn anything from the success of Aquafina and its ilk? Why is it that consumers cheerfully pay more for thirst-quenchers than we do for the fuel that moves our vehicles and our economy?
Such a freeing of virtual pocket-change has been suggested within the news industry to be an iTunes challenge: If people will pay a buck for a song, surely they’ll pay a few pennies for the sweat and shoe-leather of America’s newsrooms.
But news, like gas and water both, is a consumable: Once it’s used, it’s used. Unlike a song on iTunes, yesterday’s news report is not a moment to be savored over and over throughout the years. Which is why the bottle water example is so intriguing.
Presumably, the same people buying water by the half-liter are spending the same disposable income on the latest digital Green Day single. Yet, almost universally, when asked, they say they won’t pay for digital news content at any price.
So what have Pepsi and Coke — both huge water-bottlers — figured out about selling packaged commodities that the collective minds of the newspaper industry have not? How do you sell something when so much of it is being given away for free?