The Daily Herald Betting Far More Than $20 Per Reader

Newspapers need a new pricing model that reflects the online age of readership.
I’ve got 3 ideas on how to help.

The front page of the suburban The Daily Herald, penned by the Editor, shouted the newspaper’s stance loud and clear: “Why our digital news cannot be free.

The 139-year-old newspaper has officially made the decision to charge for most content from the paper online. If you want to read The Daily Herald online from now on, you’re going to have to pony up $19.99 a month to do so. And by the way, no other paper in Chicagoland is charging digital readers on this kind of scale.

On paper – no pun intended – it seems to make sense that people should pay for digital content. We pay for books on news, we pay for TV and radio on news, so we should pay for papers that provide news, right?

Well…it’s not quite that simple as some would make it out to be.

Journalists and Editors say their content has value and needs to be paid for, because advertising isn’t bringing in enough revenue. Readers say the minute they’re charged money to read online content that they’ll go elsewhere to find it.

How does it all shake out?

The answer comes down to this: Is the content exclusive and original?

I have nothing against paying to read outstanding, exclusive content I can’t find anywhere else. But I have plenty against paying to read decent content that I can find elsewhere.

If a reader can get that content elsewhere from a source that isn’t charging for it, that’s where they’re going to go. So the paper has to provide content that’s spectacular and can’t be found anywhere else. Is the Herald’s content spectacular? It certainly has good columnists. But can I find solid reporting and opinions of the issues elsewhere? Honestly, much of the time the answer is yes.

The New York Times can get away with charging people a decent monthly flat rate for its digital version because it’s The New York Times. Let’s be honest. Is such a price worth it for unique reporting on the news of Bolingbrook and Hinsdale? I’m not trying to be rude here, but I’m wondering if local news reported on DuPage County is worth that investment to people these days.

Let’s look at the issue from a different medium – radio. When Howard Stern went to Sirius Satellite Radio several years back, people wondered if we’d hear the last of him as a result. Well, like him or hate him, Mr. Stern has a loyal, passionate fan base who know they can’t get Howard Stern or anything close to him anywhere else. The investment is a no-brainer for them because the content is original and exclusive. Is it working? Did you not see the gigantic contract he signed for more years on the air at Sirius?

For the same reason, like him or hate him, this is why I think Glenn Beck probably made a good move in asking people to pay for his content too.

So here are 3 ideas that might make more sense for smaller newspapers like The Daily Herald:

  • Subscribe by Columnist
    My suggestion is simple. If the columnist is good, people can pay through a Newspaper App Store to subscribe to that columnist. If the columnist is ordinary, they don’t. So there’s no waste in subscribing to a newspaper or magazine full of other stories I don’t want to read. On the other hand, if it’s a Chuck Goudie or Mike Imrem, they read who they want. Why force people to read a person who doesn’t have value in their eyes?
  • Subscribe by Story
    Come on. How much of that paper do you end up throwing away because you haven’t read the whole thing? And how many of us read the whole thing anyway? Enable us to subscribe by certain topics (or even possibly keywords) that ensure greater value for the readership because we stand a greater chance of reading what we want, when we want it.
  • Preview, then Pay
    Each story is previewed with 50-100 words, which then means the reader has the option to pay for the rest of that story if they want. I’ve certainly seen this strategy employed by other websites and if the content is powerful enough, I’ve paid to read the rest.

If structured correctly and reasonably, the newspaper actually has the ability to make more money through these methods than a flat rate. Plus, they’ll know which columnists bring more value to the paper through the quality of their stories being purchased. While it might not be free, the win here for readers is that they pay only for what they’re interested in reading.
If they don’t explore these alternatives, what you will find with the Daily Herald and other papers like them will be a smaller, more concentrated readership of people who value the content. The question of their survival will be how small that readership becomes. The paper has to go through growing pains of potentially trimming staff and printing fewer papers, but this is a natural progression of where the world is going. Bottom line: Do I see charging people $20 a month across the board to read online content as a good growth strategy? No.

To be clear, there’s still room in this world for the information put forth from journalists. No doubt about it. But newspapers have to create subscription plans that reflect readership habits of an online world, not a print one.

What’s your take? Do you agree with The Daily Herald charging $20 a month for online reading? What about charging for online readership in general? What are some examples of online content that’s worth paying for, in your opinion?