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.