Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why readers always speak with forked tongue

The latest instalment of the debate about how The Guardian is going to pay for itself comes from the USA where some people, such as David Carr, the New York Times's veteran media correspondent, suggest the paper use its current success in exposing NSA secrets to get people to "show a little sugar" by paying for it.

Journalists are often poor at predicting what readers will or will not pay for. Furthermore they are uncharacteristically naive when it comes to believing what they want to hear.

People may pledge money in public for things they advertise their approval of in public but in private their default position is not to pay. You may get a proportion of the readers who would put their hands in their pocket as they might for some charity but that's really no basis for an ongoing commercial endeavour. And for everybody who does so there will be hundreds who will intend to but will never get round to it and tens of thousands more who will remember something else they have to do and simply melt away. I've experienced this at first hand.

And you only have to look at the comments below the fold to see that people are very inventive when it comes to coming up with principled reasons why they won't pay. They never speak the truth, which is they don't feel like it.

But where Carr is mistaken is in thinking the things that papers value - the respect of their peers, getting talked about on TV current affairs programmes, revelations about spying, Pulitzers - are the same things readers value. They aren't. When newspaper buying was the norm rather than the exception people picked them up to keep up with the humdrum stuff - what starlet wore on red carpet, who's starting for England tonight, the court report of a murder in the suburbs, the crossword - rather than a way of keeping up with the exceptional stuff. 

The problem that all the British papers have now is that all that humdrum stuff, apart from the crossword, is provided for free - either by a giveaway newspaper or by the BBC.


  1. Absolutely spot-on. Me & the missus are avid readers of the Guardian, but always online. The only time I've ever paid them was when they put their crosswords behind a £25-a-year subscription - I was happy to pay that and I've no idea why they stopped. I'd be happy to pay 50p or £1 into an online tip-jar every now and then, but their subscription models seem to biased towards the print editions.

  2. As with radio, consumers have a choice where they get this stuff now. Inevitably, people drift away from newspapers towards things that suit their specific interests and daily routine better.

    If you access news on your computer, TV or phone, you're still paying for it - but its not a charge that you separate out from the rest of your electricity/data bill and think of as costing anything.

  3. Part of the problem is that - other than Apple - there isn't a simple micro-payments mechanism.

    If I want buy a newspaper of magazine, it's usually when I see it, and I can simply pick it up and pay for it. I might give up if there's a queue, but it's easy.

    Online, I have to subscribe, or mess about to get access to the version I've heard about or been sent a link to. There's no electronic "read this issue" one click solution.

    I usually want to read this issue for a specific reason and not subscribe. If it's good I might come back, but I might not. I'm passing trade, not a regular. On the other hand, you can catch my eye on Twitter or may be an alert mechanism if there's a new article about "X".

    That the public is fickle I agree. My wife cancelled my Week subscription DD (because she was having a clear out and didn't recognise it). Once I noticed that the magazine wasn't turning up, I kept meaning to re-subscribe, didn't for a month or two and, when I eventually did, it folded a month or so later. I still feel personally responsible. I loved that magazine, but it still took me a while to get round to subscribing.

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  5. Let's hope you're not inadvertently blazing a trail here, David - groups of hardy news fans gathering above a pub once a month to hear Alan Rusbridger chat to Edward Snowden about some interesting documents he's brought along.
    But on a less cynical note, I do hope your own Word in Your Ear business model is paying for itself. Been to two in a row now and find them as fascinating - and as good value for money - as the magazine from which they sprang. Power, elbow, etc.