In search of a cure for the “content welfare society”

But that is not the world we live in today. Many publications were eager to get ahead of the trend and forayed into the digital space, by putting content – and good content at that – online in an overeager and, in many cases, not very well thought out way. To be fair, this started in the mid- to late 1990s in a time when nobody really understood where the internet was going to take us.

The reality is – and history will show – that infantile online experiments have created an environment Dr Samir A. Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Centre at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, describes as the ‘content welfare society’.

In this content welfare society, explains Dr Husni, people have come to expect to receive information online for free. In fact this expectation has become entrenched and part of the ‘culture’.

While many will quite willingly pay to read a print publication, the moment they hit a paywall on the internet, they tend to navigate elsewhere. But even worse for online, argues Dr Husni, is that the value of online advertising in the content welfare society was always destined to be of lessor value. While people expect advertising in the print environment, in the content welfare state, the online advert is so intrusive that it impact is negated.

For Dr Husni, who believes the word ‘magazine’ – or ‘newspaper’ for that matter – can only be used if the product constitutes actual ink on actual paper, the existence of the content welfare society poses little threat for print. If anything it offers an opportunity to resurrect the golden era of print.

That said, for those who maintain that the brave new publishing world lies firmly entrenched in the digital environment, the challenge remains: how to turn content spongers into content paymasters.

A quick recap of the journey so far. In an attempt to get readers to pay for internet content, the paywall – in all its varied forms – was created. While some showed us how not to do it – Rupert Murdoch being a case in point chasing away nine out of 10 online visitors with his hard paywall strategy at The Times – others, like the Financial Times, were more successful with metered, or ‘freemium’, paywalls coaxing readers into online subscriptions with a model whereby you receive a limited number of articles free of charge and then need to pay up.

While the debate over an optimum model continues, the reality is that with so much free content available online, and the growing popularity of blogs, and cult-like following of bloggers from the fashion to tech space, developing a paywall that works and effectively replaces or complements advertising income is still some way away.

If anything today’s content welfare society suffers from content, or if you like, information overload. There is just too much content out there to consume. So why pay for it? In this vein, focus has shifted towards content aggregation – sifting through the deluge of content and packaging up what people want, in one place.

Another option is to take your lead from what’s worked within the realm of social media. The Daily Mail here leads the pack within the newspaper sector. It has managed to get the masses (in the UK that is) – to log on to their website and keep them engaged. This in a world where social media effectively owns the masses. The Daily Mail has stuck to its core focus – news – but has taken a page from the social media handbook, also successfully adding videos, citizens’ journalism and citizens’ opinion to their offering and so have found ways to coin in on targeted online advertising strategies.

Where does that leave online newspapers and magazines? In much in the same place it leaves the high street and/or charity shop. The person who decides to buy a suite or dress from the high street will not enter the charity shop, because he or she is willing to pay up for what they view as quality and exclusivity. Sure, they may on occasion dapple in charity shop finds for the odd fancy dress party, but when it comes to their stable wardrobe, most are willing to pay high street prices despite the ‘cheaper’ alternative. Or to bring the analogy closer to the medium under discussion, why do people worldwide pay rather large percentages of their income to watch satellite television?

People have always been prepared to pay for quality and exclusivity they cannot get elsewhere for free. Beyond the traditional view that newspapers and magazines should inform, educate and entertain, good newspapers and magazines should also offer content that is new and exclusive, views that are well informed and arguments that lead to debate.

If these are intrinsic to the brand the target audience will be willing to pay for the content whether it’s delivered via homing pigeon, snail mail, email or…you can see where we are going with this. The channel of delivery becomes of secondary concern to the quality of the content.

By extension good quality content, reinforces the brand and in a global world of mass production and mass information, people are more willing than ever to pay for a brand that signifies quality and insight. The Financial Times and The Economist are two good examples were both the quality of  content and strength of brand, sees the target audience willing to fork out for access. Indeed, it is more expensive to access The Economist digitally, than it is to buy the print version – testament that the audience becomes indifferent to the channel if they trust the brand and its content.

The knee-jerk reaction to declining sales in traditional media over the past two decades has been to try and save itself into profit. In the process the industry has lost experience and quality content. It also lost its talent and potential to adapt to the challenges posed by the changing environment the internet brought with it.

The principle of subscriptions (paying for content) is as old as publishing itself. The internet did not change this. It has only made it possible for mediocre content to be freely distributed – or re-hashed – by people who could not afford a printing press in the past.

Those who produce desirable content today do not find it challenging to secure subscribers. Yes, many of them are in niche markets but the underlying principles of quality content remains. The only variable is if the subscriber desires the product to be printed or flashed on a screen.

A future variable will be if people will stick to paying for a specific brand’s content or opt to buy a basket of related content from a selection of quality brands. The apps with the utility to have this form of market freedom has already been developed.  

When we start to utilise this level of content capitalism, welfare sites will remain what they are: charity shops – good for the occasional browse, but hardly the place to invest in a dinner jacket.

More like this

Paid content models: lessons learned

Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x