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Feb. 23, 2009, 10:55 p.m.

WSJ: We charge, why aren’t you?

Not a day goes by without someone adding their thoughts to the growing pile of opinion about what newspapers should do when it comes to charging for content online. The latest treatise comes from L. Gordon Crovitz, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal — whose opinion is notable if only because his publication is one of the few that actually does so successfully. Not only that, but Crovitz is also the former publisher of the WSJ and the former head of Dow Jones Consumer Media Group, and helped launch the Factiva information group. As he describes it:

For a decade beginning in the late 1990s, I was the Dow Jones executive chiefly charged with defending the paid-subscription business model of The Wall Street Journal’s Web site. The skunk at every Internet-bubble-era garden party, the Journal team was often told we “just didn’t get it,” that information wants to be free and the paid model was idiotic.

Is there just a little gloating there, underneath the surface? Possibly — and perhaps some of it is justified. In any case, Crovitz wants to make the case that newspaper publishers gave up too easily in the fight to charge for content, and that they need to think about how to make their content worth paying for instead of whining about it quite so much. And he notes that there are many examples of publications and services that get people to pay for what they produce:

The truth is … people are happy to pay for news and information however it’s delivered, but only if it has real, differentiated value. Traders must have their Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters terminal. Lawyers wouldn’t go to court without accessing the Lexis or West online service.

Jack Shafer ploughed much the same furrow in his recent piece in Slate about how “not all information wants to be free” (Crovitz even has a similar title, although he reverses it and calls his “Information Wants To Be Expensive”). The Slate columnist mentions the Wall Street Journal too, of course, and Bloomberg and Major League Baseball’s MLB.com, and iTunes — everyone’s favourite example of how to charge for content — and XboxLive. According to the sub-hed on his piece, newspapers simply need to “act like they’re worth something.”

But is that really all that’s required? I think Crovitz is right in the larger sense, that newspapers need to think of ways to add value to their content to make it worth paying for — but I think his examples, and those trotted out by Shafer, aren’t particularly useful. Why? Well, for one thing, there is only one Wall Street Journal, and one Bloomberg for that matter. Leaving aside the fact that Bloomberg actually charges mostly for its proprietary terminals (should newspapers get into the hardware business too?), both of them are written off by the vast majority of their users/readers as a business expense. That’s not a route just anyone can take (veteran media analyst Lauren Rich Fine seems to agree with me).

As for WestLaw and Major League Baseball and Xbox Live and iTunes, let’s remember that all of these entities control the content in an almost — or even outright — monopolistic fashion (and WestLaw doesn’t just own the legal data, it actually controls the referencing method for that data, which is used by virtually all courts and law firms). MLB and Xbox and iTunes content is virtually unavailable in any other format. How is a newspaper supposed to come up with something like that? It can’t. Which means that encouraging papers to think in those terms is distinctly unhelpful.

Thinking about adding value is one thing. Spinning pipe dreams about coming up with the newspaper version of XboxLive is another thing entirely.

POSTED     Feb. 23, 2009, 10:55 p.m.
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