NYTimes.com, after a decade as a free site, announced May 16 that it would begin charging an annual fee for access to some content, including its op-ed columnists.
On the same day, CNN.com announced that it would stop charging a fee to access its online video content, beginning June 20.
So which is it? Will news content be free online or will it require an access fee?
The short answer, industry observers say, is that must-have, valuable content will command a fee and commoditized content will not.
"I think unique, differentiated, proprietary business content has clear value," said Gordon Crovitz, senior VP of Dow Jones & Co. and president of its electronic publishing group, which charges an annual subscription to The Wall Street Journal Online.
On the other hand, Charlie Tillinghast, general manager-publisher of MSNBC.com, said, "It is our view in general that news content will be advertiser-supported and will not be for-pay-type content."
It will likely take several years before news consumers decide how they want their news and which kind they will pay for. This evolution is important for b-to-b marketers, which have often used the network, cable and online news media as vehicles for delivering advertising messages.
News business in flux
What's certain is that the news business is in flux. What's also clear is that the news has had a lot of bad news lately.
For newspapers overall, circulation is down, declining 1.9% between October 2004 and March 2005, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. For network television news, Nielsen Media Research ratings have declined steadily for the past three decades. And for Dan Rather, the blogosphere showed the former CBS News anchor that nontraditional news sources possess an undeniable power.
What with the fact that newspaper readership and broadcast news viewership are down, combined with the Newsweek Quran flap, the Jayson Blair scandal and other media black eyes, many wonder about the news industry's future.
A brief digital "mockumentary," which is titled "EPIC 2014" and has been circulated widely online, asks the question, "What happened to the news?" It posits the notion that The New York Times will print its last newspaper in 2014 and that Googlezon, the merger of Google and Amazon, will control the flow of information.
The short piece was inspired by the "Pong of Electronic Publishing" speech by Martin Nisenholtz, senior VP-digital operations at the New York Times Co. In the speech, he referred to a Microsoft Corp. VP who "postulated that the last newspaper edition of The New York Times would be published in 2016."
But even as people get their news less and less often from the old-fashioned sources, there appears to be a continuing hunger for international, national and business news. In addition to the network news broadcasts, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC battle it out as 24-hour cable news outlets.
Online, CNN.com and MSNBC.com go toe-to-toe for viewers. Additionally, MSN, Yahoo! and other portals aggregate news content for tens of millions of unique visitors. On the horizon are wireless news access, the increasing influence of blogs and the growing popularity of RSS feeds. All of these new media will, in some way, accommodate advertising messages. The Internet is ideal for breaking news, and generally online news is free for users.
CNN abandons video fees
CNN's decision to abandon its fees for video content is telling as to how news consumption is evolving. Most observers believe that CNN abandoned its fee structure because it saw MSNBC.com overtake it in unique visitors in January. In March, MSNBC.com tallied 27.0 million unique visitors, while CNN posted 23.3 million, according to comScore Media Metrix.
MSNBC.com doesn't charge for its video content, a business decision that may have contributed to its rising audience figures. Tillinghast said general sites such as MSNBC.com that aggregate news won't be able to charge for access to content. They will generate money from advertisers, which, he argued, isn't that much different from the way it has always been in the news business.
Tillinghast pointed to the newspaper business model, where subscription fees cover production and delivery costs. The editorial staff, however, is bankrolled by advertising revenue.
On the Web, he said, readers won't pay for newspaper-style content, because the production costs of running a Web site are miniscule compared with printing a daily newspaper. Advertisers will pay for the single largest cost center: reporters.
But some news, observers said, will always command a fee. WSJ.com has always charged a fee, and it has attracted more than 700,000 subscribers. Some trade publications, particularly those with must-have content, will command a fee in niche arenas.
Bruce Morris, exec VP at SourceMedia, explained that some information is worth paying for. "We charge $10,000 a subscription for the Takeover Stock Report. Arbitrageurs use that real-time information to trade equity with," he said.
NYTimes.com won't be charging quite that much for its Times Select package-$49.95 a year-but the underlying belief is the same. Portions of the online offering qualify as must-have information for a core group of readers.
The fact that NYTimes.com believes it can charge readers for content speaks to the reliance that readers have on a professional class of editors and reporters, according to some observers. While some fret that the Fourth Estate is crumbling, most industry observers believe that powerful brands and a professional class of journalists will continue to deliver the news in the future.
But what shape will news organizations take?
Nisenholtz in his "Pong" speech postulated that we are on the cusp of "the birth of wholly new forms of publishing media," which could combine blogging, video and other media forms. He compared current online news sites to the "Pong" videogame in the 1970s, saying the news sites of 30 years from now may compare with today's news sites as the complexity of the Sony PlayStation compares with Pong and other early videogames. But he cautioned that this new form must sustain a "professional class."
Tillinghast added, "I think the trouble with the view that the whole news world has been passed by and it will be just bloggers is the assumption that news just happens and that it doesn't take any particular skill to create a news story."
In the information economy, news is not going away. But what form it does take-and how advertisers take advantage of it-will both one day be news.