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The Fundamental Problem With Newspaper Paywalls

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Canadians living in the bustling metropolis of Montreal and the
picturesque city of Victoria are getting a taste of what some media
executives hope may be the future -- paying for the news online. The
in Montreal and the Victoria Times-Colonist on Vancouver
Island have become the latest testbeds to see if people will pony up to get their local news on the web.

From Wednesday, access to the newspaper websites was limited to the
first 20 articles, before hitting a paywall. It is part of an
experiment by PostMedia Network, Canada's largest publisher of paid
English language daily newspapers, in two relatively small markets for
its papers.

Like every newspaper group, PostMedia is trying to figure out how to
manage the transition from a paid print circulation to a digital
readership that is used to getting its news for free.

Changing human behavior is a tall order. A recent survey that
suggested that Canadians are overwhelmingly unwilling to part with their
cash for the news

It found that 92% of Canadians who get news online say they would find another
free site if their favourite news site started charging for content.

However, there is a more fundamental issue at play. People have never
really paid for the news. By news, I mean the political infighting in
city halls or the violence in faraway foreign places -- the news that
is important and matters but can be challenging to make relevant to a
broad audience.

Readers were paying for the sport results, the lifestyle section,
diversions like the crossword and horoscopes. The cost of producing
"the daily miracle" as Canadian playwright David Sherman put it was
largely borne by advertising sales. The subsidy model worked when mass
media was the dominant model for distributing the news. The business
of newspapers was delivering large audiences to advertisers, and they
were pretty good at it.

For readers, in exchange for a few pennies, they could get a neatly
packaged bundle of news and information in this easy to use and
portable format we called the newspaper. And did you know that it also
conveniently arrived on the doorstep in the morning.

The daily newspaper worked because it was a product honed over
centuries and met a fundamental need at a specific time in the history
of the media. It managed to fit everything you needed to know into a
bunch of pages. It provided a service, informing readers of events, in
a convenient format.

Print organisations were never in the business of selling news. They
were selling something that people are willing to pay for -- service
and convenience.

The news itself was not a commercial product.

The commercial product was the bundle of news, sport and
entertainment in a delivery mechanism called the newspaper.
Rather than investing in models that try to change audience behaviour,
news organisations should be trying to find new ways that provide
service and convenient in a digital media age. That's something you
can charge for.