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With the end of the TimesSelect pay service for New York Times editorialists and archives — and the possible end of the Wall Street Journal Online’s paid wall — I wondered if anyone would pay for content on newspaper sites. Most of the stories there are timely news, meaning they don’t hold value for very long, and much of the national and international news is available in many places for free online.

So what’s left? What would people be willing to pay for on newspaper sites? I put the question to MediaShift readers, and there was a mix of answers relating to niche content, special formats and a version without ads that they’d be willing to pay for. Bill Densmore did a great roundup of opinion on the opening up of TimesSelect. Densmore’s conclusion:

> Journalism is expensive, and web advertising alone may not sustain it.
bq. > Charging for content puts up walls which destroy the brilliant utility of the open web.
bq. > Are we therefore destined to have a an open web, and unsustainable journalism?

I don’t think so. The challenge is to develop an approach which preserves open linking but yet creates a basis to sustain quality content, whether by advertising or direct user support. Suppose the Times were able to get paid as its users are served demographically-targetted ads from third-party sites? Then it could monetize the demographics of its quality-journalism-seeking audience.

Densmore also pointed to an essay by newspaper consultant and blogger Vin Crosbie. Crosbie says that paid content isn’t dead as long as it’s “premier content in a topical category” and notes that Consumer Reports, Playboy and Zagat still charge for content (though none are newspapers). He thinks newspapers need to delivery custom content for people online in order to charge for it:

People would be willing to pay a subscription fee for a service that delivers news to them online; but not for a service that doesn’t exactly meet their needs and interests, that sends exactly the same package of news to everyone. Paid content isn’t dead; just payment for the traditional ‘one-to-many’ package of content is.

And that thinking fits well with what some MediaShift readers mentioned they would be willing to pay for. Carl said he would pay for step-by-step financial advice. Phil Shapiro said he would pay to have his own content, such as YouTube commentary, show up on the New York Times’ website. Zac Echola said newspapers could charge their most involved readers for extra features. And Adam Engst says he’d pay for evergreen content he couldn’t get elsewhere.

The common theme is that they don’t want to pay for archives or typical content they could find in the printed paper. They want niche or personalized content delivered in new ways online.

New Formats and No Ads

With all the news content available online, perhaps newspaper companies should consider different formats to deliver the news. Nico Luchsinger said he would pay for an audio version of the newspaper, similar to what the Economist offers for free to paid print subscribers. “I could also imagine paying for ‘dossiers,’ collections of articles and additional resources on a certain subject,” he wrote. “I might pay for aggregation services, for example a summary of the most important articles on a certain subject, delivered by mail.”

Doug Skoglund said he would pay to have the content delivered on disc. “I would be happy to subscribe, at a reasonable fee, to a digital edition, to be delivered on disc, with necessary database software and data to be added to my personal database.”

Mike Ho thought that people would pay for an advertisement-free version of the site, and also for advance access to news stories. While that is great in theory, Ho points out one problem: If those stories go out on the news wires it’s difficult to offer people an exclusive advance look at them.

A few people backed up Ho on the notion of paying for an ad-free newspaper site. Salon has been offering that as a benefit of becoming a premium member. Perhaps newspapers should consider a similar premium offering, allowing people to get ad-free sites and earn discounts from local merchants. Of course one problem, as Zac Echola points out, is that you can eliminate most ads on web pages by using free ad-blocking software.

So what will it take to get people to pay up at newspaper sites? Niche, specialized, personalized content delivered in new ways — or an ad-free version of the site. Otherwise, run-of-the-mill commentary and news that people can find elsewhere just won’t cut it.

What do you think? Would you pay a fee for an ad-free version of a newspaper site? What other content would you pay for? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of newspaper reader by Prashant Bhardwaj via Flickr.

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