Should Online Newspaper Content Be Free?

    November 6, 2008
    Chris Crum

Shane RichmondShane Richmond writing at has an interesting piece up about whether or not online newspaper content should be free. He specifically looks at the business model of the Financial Times, which charges readers to read its content. There are of course, other publications that do this as well.

Popular opinion tends to lean toward the "we can get the info elsewhere for free" side of the fence. "You can’t copyright facts and once you’ve released them they are available to all," writes Richmond. "Anyone with an internet connection, a subscription to a couple of news sites and a telephone could take your stories, move them on and publish them to their readers free of charge."

Beyond that, stories tend to grow as more sources cover them from different angles, and often a larger and more informed version of a story becomes the product of that. And that version is more often than not going to be free. TechDirt picked up on Richmond’s article. There, Mike Masnick says:

News was going to be free online from the beginning because it’s the fundamental nature of information. When it’s abundant, it becomes free. That’s your basic economics of supply and demand at work. The whole theory that newspapers could charge is based on the false assumption that the only sources for news would be newspapers. If all newspapers charged, it would open up a huge opportunity for other news sources to make the news free online — and then why would people pay the newspapers? It’s sad, in this day and age, that so many newspaper execs still don’t understand this basic fact — because, until they do, they’ll never really be able to adopt web-aged business models. Instead, they’ll just keep (incorrectly) regretting that they didn’t charge.

Still, there are valid points to both sides of the argument. For one, although online advertising itself has been doing fine, online newspaper advertising has seen slowing growth. And when their isn’t a subscription model in place, advertising is an even bigger key to revenue. So publications that already have a solid subscriber base are not going to want to give up that money.

But, one has to wonder if these online newspapers would see better advertising revenue come in if they were not charging for their content, because advertisers know that they can reach more readers on a widely available, free site. Richmond made an interesting point about younger generations as well. "I think it will become harder and harder for the FT to maintain its audience as the internet generation climbs the corporate ladder," he says. "The current audience believe they are getting content that they can’t get anywhere else – and that certainly isn’t available free – but the audience of the future may already have found other, more accessible publishers to meet their needs."

The paid subscription model is still working for some. So far. There’s no doubt that this is going to hinder the growth of their readership. But until a publication sees the effects start to snowball downhill, it might be stubborn and protective of its content, which it feels is truly a cut above the rest and worth paying for. The Wall Street Journal seems to be enjoying revenue and a combination of free and paid content (FT has some free content as well).

What do you think about the matter? Should online newspapers continue to charge for their content or is it only a matter of time before they go free?