Charlie Mitchell: How much is news worth?

July 23, 2013 9:58:38 AM

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OXFORD -- The value of news and information has never been questioned. People want it; people need it. The issue going back to invention of the printing press is how much people will pay for it. 

 

Fifty years ago, the price of a monthly subscription to the local daily newspaper was $1.75. There was no discount from the rack price -- a nickel a day and 10 cents on Sundays -- but if there were five Sundays in month, the home delivery customer saved a nickel. 

 

Carriers bought wholesale and sold retail, profiting about 2 cents per paper. But even back then there were artful dodgers. Maybe they didn't think getting the news should be free, but certain folks were known to go deaf when carriers rang the doorbell on collection day. 

 

While newspapers (those with news in them) have always cost money, news was "free" on television back in antenna days (unless one figured in the cost of the TV itself and the electricity it used). 

 

Today, TV is anything but free. Most households pay $60 to $200 per month or more for cable, satellite and Internet programming. It's impossible to cipher how much of their TV bill people regard as paying for news. No reason to break it out. But they are paying, willingly. 

 

And while fewer households subscribe to a daily or weekly newspaper, tens of thousands of Mississippians still do -- especially community papers. 

 

Said to be rivaling "driveway products" are "Internet products," which almost all media companies offer and almost all were initially free, just as early TV. 

 

There really was no reason to charge, mostly because of the peculiar nature of the business model for selling news. Specifically, the price of the product has never covered more than a fraction of the cost to produce it. Print and broadcast companies have always been able to sell advertising to pay the lion's share of costs as well as provide profits. People who read newspapers or magazines, tune in broadcasts and even the Internet are a captive audience. Advertisers pay to ride along. 

 

Advertisers are still as interested as ever in getting their messages to us. People are also as interested as ever, perhaps more interested, in news and information. 

 

But, in addition to other factors, there's been a vast splintering of the audience. Advertisers' dollars are spread thinner and thinner. The net effect for media companies has been to seek ways to shift more of the cost of gathering and presenting news and information directly to those who want the news and information. 

 

The first and most abrupt incarnation came to be known as the "pay wall." Typically, a media Internet site will offer some information free. But then a message appears, inviting the viewer to provide a credit card number if he or she wants to see more. Not surprisingly, people have not embraced this joyfully. (Most don't remember their parents scoffing at the idea of cable TV, saying "Why should we pay for something we can get free?") 

 

Now media companies, having experimented with all sorts of variations of "online subscriptions," are testing more twists, more approaches. 

 

Forbes magazine's website may be on the cutting edge of innovation. It doesn't charge readers, but writers are paid based on the number of people who read their articles. Forbes sells traditional-type ads, but it also has "sponsored" articles that advertisers pay to post. 

 

Most media companies are smaller and less sophisticated. They are offering something akin to restaurant a la carte menus. Subscribers pay only for what they view. 

 

This, of course, can be cumbersome. 

 

This ongoing transition is not unlike the early days of the Internet itself, when AOL and other companies charged customers based on time spent online or the volume of material downloaded. 

 

Anyway, it's interesting to see all this evolve. No one has yet found the perfect or ideal technology. No one has found a way to make payment for news as unnoticed as it is for cable, satellite or Internet video services. 

 

Here are the constants: 

 

1. People seek news and information. 

 

2. People will pay for news and information in proportion to the value they place in the news and information. 

 

So let the experimentation continue. 

 

If the journalists' efforts are to continue -- especially at the local level where they are crucial to the quality of life in a community -- the money has to come from somewhere. 

 

How much is news worth? We're getting answers every day.