Thursday, July 15, 2004

Charging for obits online
I'm a firm believer that journalism, at least parts of it, has to transition to a user-pay, not advertiser-subsidized, model, but the case of Indiana's Bloomington Herald-Times online edition shows how that can go awry when we confuse journalism with information.

You may have read on this Web log my memorial to Richard Yoakam, a former professor and dear friend. The night I found out, I went looking for the obit on the H-T site. It let me search and find the link -- and then slapped me with a $5.95 subscription notice to look at it. To the H-T's credit, the $5.95 is not as onerous as some sites, but it still raises the issue of information vs. journalism and how much to charge for each.

I suppose the H-T could make the argument that the obit was not available anywhere else, and so its marginal value was high. Except I was able to get the information elsewhere. The H-T did no journalism to add any value to it.

Therefore, the marginal or convenience value was not worth $5.95 a month versus the relatively little time I had to spend elsewhere. But what if, instead of the subscription fee for what is largely an information-compilation part of its site, the paper instead had used a different model here, the Salon model of watch an ad and get limited access? Now the investment in time is much closer to marginal value, and I am likely to do it.

So the H-T lost a customer. The paper probably doesn't care; I'm out of town and won't come back to the site that much (though if you think about it, a paper in a college town such as that has a potential market of alumni to be tapped. Think about the job the Lawrence World is doing in UKan territory with, and -- all free, by the way).

But let's say the H-T wanted to generate some revenue out of me, and I'm willing to spend something to get the obit. Micro-pay systems are still a pain and not widespread enough. Then the ad model might work, but it requires some creative thinking on the part of the paper's ad staff. The easy thing is to sell local funeral homes, but if you work from the assumption that a certain attraction of obits is for out-of-town relatives and friends, that just raises the CPM. But what about florists? If I'm out of town and want to send flowers, I'm a potential customer. As for national accounts, why not approach casket makers like Batesville? Targeted ads, happy customers, additional marginal revenue for the paper.

On a related note, NYU professor Adam Pennberg has an interesting story in Wired News on how the NY Times might be undercutting its status as the paper of record by failing to make its content easily available to search engines. John Battelle elaborates on that idea by suggesting that one of the coming economic models might well be subscription search engines that give you wide access to subscription content and archives. I think it's worth considering. But as one respondent to Battelle's post noted, many public libraries provide such online access free with a library card. Which is another reason I cringe when I hear students boast that they've never been to the library ...
(Thanks to Paid Content for the pointers on those.)


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