THE BLOG

Could the Cable T.V. Model Save Online News?

10/27/2013 08:25 EDT | Updated 12/27/2013 05:12 EST

The newspaper industry has yet to come to terms with the Internet. With decreasing circulation figures and declining ad revenues, daily papers haven't figured out how to turn a profit from their online readership.

There have been numerous attempts at getting online users to pay, few of which have worked. The latest one is the New York Times' paywall which has apparently met with some success but is likely doomed to failure since it can easily be circumvented.

It's time for newspapers to do some out-of-the-Net thinking. If they don't adapt to modern techniques, they're headed the way of the dodo bird.

The industry's cry for the last decade and a half has been "Why should online readers get our content for free?" That, I submit, is the wrong question to ask. In fact, it's not even a legitimate question since the premise is false.

I don't get my local daily online paper for free. I pay about $55 a month for Internet access and I'd say that half of that access is spent viewing several online newspapers.

Thus, from my perspective, I'm already paying upwards of $30 a month to subscribe to different papers. Granted, given that I can access even more newspapers and a few magazines of interest, too, this is still not a bad bargain.

But the fact remains that I am not getting this content for free. I'm paying for it and not at insubstantial rates. So when any particular newspaper berates me for not ponying up more cash to read their digital edition, I'm resentful.

So what's the answer? Instead of aping the New York Times's paywall, I suggest that newspapers use the cable TV industry as a model.

It wasn't that many years ago that everyone got their TV programs over the air for free. At that time, few thought it was possible to get viewers to actually pay for content.

Yet, here we are years later paying exorbitant amounts for cable or satellite TV with seldom a peep from the average consumer. Free over-the-air broadcast programming is still available but most of us choose to spend hundreds of dollars a year to get our TV fix.

The newspaper industry's solution is to join forces with the ISPs, the Internet service providers like Bell and Rogers, that connect us to the Internet. This would change the perception of an online newspaper as "free" content to premium content that one would gladly pay a few more cents to receive.

Once they've junked their paywall, the New York Times should enter into negotiations with major ISPs. The Times would grant little or no online access to the average Internet surfer and instead would include themselves as an option available to any given ISP, many of which are the same companies acting as gatekeepers to our cable and satellite viewing.

Bell or Rogers, for example, would offer full à la carte access to a wealth of newspapers, magazines or other sites for nominal fees. The New York Times might be twenty-five cents a month. A selected package of five publications, say, might cost you an extra dollar a month.

The Internet service providers take a small cut and the lion's share of the revenue is passed on to the online publications. In fact, unlike cable and satellite TV companies, ISPs could easily provide a wide range of choices to consumers to add anything and everything in the way of fully accessible on-line publications.

Some might argue that ISPs already have tight profit margins. Whether they do or not, however, won't matter. Consumers will simply be asked to pay "a little more" for some "premium content", premium content that now is no longer available for "free."

That's how the cable and satellite TV companies roped us in years ago. Back then, they hooked us with basic cable for five dollars a month and then slowly upped the ante. Now some folks happily pay over a $100 a month for their television fix.

The same will likely happen to online newspapers sold as "inexpensive" add-ons to Internet packages. But once you're used to paying 25 cents a month for the Times, it won't be long before you're paying 50 cents a month, a dollar a month or even more. And that's how technology will save the newspaper business.