Is Free News on The Internet Over?

The newsroom resembles a bank's trading room, with roughly 400 journalists sitting next to each at long rows of tables. "Our nerve center," says Barber. After Barber eliminated separate editorial offices in 2006, everyone in the newsroom now writes for both online and print. "Both are equally valuable to us," he says. "And we have made sure that everyone understands that."

The FT has been making money on the Internet for the past seven years. Anyone who reads more than two FT articles a month on his personal computer automatically receives a request to register. Users who wish to read more than 10 articles must shell out about €180 ($257) a year for an online subscription. Subscribers to the print version receive a discount.

In the past, the online subscription threshold was at 30 articles. When Barber reduced it to 10, his paid circulation went up to 117,000. Today 21 percent of FT income comes from the Internet.

The model ensures that all content on the FT's Web site can initially be accessed free of charge, which brings up the click-through rate (CTR). The publishers reckoned that anyone who valued the publication enough to read it more often would be prepared to pay for it. Their gamble has paid off. And even though the FT has not been unaffected by the crisis, advertising prices have not suffered, because the FT is now able to offer its advertising customers readers who haven't just found the site coincidentally through a search engine, but are reading it out of conviction.

Barber admits that it is easier for the salmon-pink paper to charge for its online content than complimentary newspapers because it is considered indispensable in the financial community. But every paper, he says, has something that others don't have. "And if they don't, the publisher should make every effort to find something."

It's easy for Barber to say, since he works for a paper whose CEO was long a journalist. John Ridding, who has been with the FT for more than 20 years, believes that publishing houses have two options. One is to save money, thereby entering a downward vicious circle. The other is to uphold their confidence in the value of journalism and expect readers to pay for it. "A newspaper's most important relationship should be with its readers, not the advertising industry," says Ridding.

This isn't quite true for the FT, which depends heavily on advertising revenues to pay its staff of more than 550 journalists, from Stockholm to Sao Paulo. But perhaps the fixation on Internet advertising revenues has clouded some media publishing executives' view of the idea that journalism is about more than filling the space next to the ads.

A Glut of Wire Service Reports and Photo Galleries

Many newspapers' Web sites contain the same reports from news agencies. Or they contain photo galleries that don't even conceal the only reason to look at them: Click me! For some publishers -- aside from the flagships of the industry -- online is still considered second-class journalism, partly and precisely because it is given away on the Internet.

Former Time CEO Isaacson hopes that paid content will also be an "opportunity to readjust the compass to what readers consider to be valuable."

Simply charging for the same content, in a time of economic and advertising crisis, will hardly be sufficient. "Finding out what readers like and consider valuable takes more time and effort than some people believe," says Ridding.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
  • |
  • 4
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...