Should Student Press Outlets Charge for Online Content? If So, How?

Last winter break, a flurry of web chatter greeted the decision of The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University to begin charging select readers a minimal fee to access its online content.  As I mentioned in a related post, the paper is the first known college news outlet to attempt an online pay scheme of any sort.

The company behind the O’Collegian‘s arrangement: Press+, which in part specializes in “flexible, sophisticated e-commerce solutions for publishers.”

Bryan Murley, director of the Center for Innovation in College Media, supported the O’Collegian‘s attempt at the time, noting, “This is the time in journalism where we’re sort of going to the coins-in-the-couch model of making money— wherever we can get a little bit here and there to keep things going.”

Eight months later, the question remains: Is this truly a model for other college media to follow?  Or like the formation of the NCAA superconferences, is it simply an impending reality that all of us will need to be ready for?

Below is a quick Q&A with Gordon Crovitz, a Press+ co-founder and former Wall Street Journal publisher.  Along with selling the merits of his particular service, he speaks more generally about the reasons why student media should strongly consider setting up a pay option or requirement for their online work.  (My thanks to Alexandra Bogus at Press+ for coordinating the interview logistics.)

What is Press+ and why might it be a benefit for student news outlets?

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Press+ was founded two years ago to enable all kinds of news publishers to help pay for journalism by generating revenues from their most active and engaged online readers. Our technology is being used by local and regional newspapers, magazines and online-only news sites, typically on a “metered” subscription model under which all visitors get free access, but readers who want unlimited access are asked to become paying subscribers. There are now more than 120 news sites using our commerce services.

This metered approach is very different from the old-fashioned paywall, which locks down all content immediately and turns readers away. A meter gives a set number of free articles to readers every month. Thus, casual readers are unaffected. The meter is designed to target only the most avid readers, those most engaged to the brand and most willing to pay to support it.

In the case of student newspapers, the tradition has been that they are free both online and in print. They need to serve their college community, and it makes good sense for students and faculty to have unlimited free access. But outside the immediate campus community, there are people who will either become paying subscribers or can be solicited for voluntary donations to cover the expense of the journalism.

Press+ offers college papers two main options: The first is a geo-targeting mechanism, wherein the publisher chooses a geographic boundary such as the campus community or city and anyone accessing within that area will not encounter any messaging asking them to pay. Similarly people with an email address affiliated with the university can simply log in with that email and continue to get free access. In this way, the meter is used to target parents and alumni, those who would be most willing to support the journalism.

The other approach is that Press+ enables student newspapers to solicit donations from supporters, such as parents or alumni. As people access the site from outside the campus community, they see messages seeking voluntary donations. They can continue to get free access, but these requests for donations can be very effective.

What news media have implemented your service so far?

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In addition to student newspapers, among the 120 publications on the Press+ platform are daily and weekly newspapers, international news brands, magazines and online-only sites. These include newspapers from large publishers such as MediaNews and Gatehouse, online-only news sites such as GlobalPost and even the humor news site The Onion, which uses Press+ to charges for access outside the U.S.

Among college publications are The Daily Orange at Syracuse, The Daily Free Press at Boston University and The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State.

A Donation teaser box is located at the bottom of The Daily Free Press homepage, although the links on the actual donation page appear inactive.

The free web is still such an alluring entity.  Interest in a student press outlet can really surmount that?

Some student newspapers will use the donation approach rather than a meter requiring parents and alumni to pay for unlimited access. But in what way will it hurt the paper to ask alumni and parents to support the publication? Two of the members of the Press+ team that works with publishers are themselves recent former editors-in-chief of their own college paper, and they can attest to the fact that having a passive “Donate” link on their homepage doesn’t bring in significant revenues. Using the Press+ meter to solicit donations, with messaging in context and based on how often someone comes to the site, increases donations significantly. This approach to donations targets those people who would be most willing to give, while keeping the publication completely free.

For the many student news media whose quality is, ahem, uneven, how can we justify charging for access to content when, frankly, it may not be worth the price?

The beauty behind the metered approach, as opposed to a pay wall, is that you’re only asking your most avid readers to pay. These are readers who have demonstrated a regular interest in the content and consider it worth the price. This is precisely the case within the realm of student journalism. College papers are unique because their content is unique. A college paper is often the only place where students, alumni, parents, community members, etc. can find the sort of content that college papers offer.

One last point: The student journalists running college newspapers who hope to have a career in journalism are very aware that the traditional model is broken—advertising is simply not going to pay so much of the expense of newsrooms as it once did, especially for newspapers and magazines. This generation needs to find new revenue streams, including new ways to generate revenues from the readers who get the most value from access.

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