Should media companies charge for content?

By Emilio Castellanos

To charge or not to charge for access to proprietary content online is an old idea based on a new media paradigm. The paywall has been highly debated, tested, embraced and forfeited over and over again but media companies are not asking the right question.

The bigger issue with monetization is that media companies have failed to react to the changes that have taken place in the ecosystem and still insist in serving controlled content online as gatekeepers. Media companies need to be asking questions about structure, portability, business focus and models to become more flexible, accommodate user preferences, identify emerging trends and then avidly follow them.

There are many different opportunities that traditional media has not mastered such as managing multiple platforms, embracing open source technology, syndication, gaming, search (SEO/SEM), online marketing, content distribution, multimedia, data mining, personas (profiling), rating systems, user ranking, contextual content, social media, community building, classifieds, ad-networks, UGC, new mobile devices, use of text messaging, etc., and other areas of the digital business. Harnessing these tools would bring any media company immediate benefits.

Monetization of content will certainly be centered around the device. The production of multimedia pieces for specific devices within the media brand that could compel readers to pay --such as you would buy a book or a magazine-- is a different issue (iPad and Tablets). In this case payment revolves around the delivery mechanism, the multimedia and entertainment implications, and around the content. However, after extensive industry cutbacks, weary investment funds, talent and know-how are now lacking and assembly of this type of unique content will be difficult to achieve.

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Today, some of the legacy publishers can only offer selective content that sometimes remains lacking in originality and reporting which in turn disappoints its readers. This phenomenon is similar to when customers went to the library or record store looking for a particular item only to find it was not in stock. This is why, when it comes to content online, search engines like Google assume the role of the media brand allowing the reader to become the editor.

In paid content terms, even if a reader finds a headline somewhere that they can’t access for free, they can use Google search to find out more on the topic, or even better, find a link to the original source itself. The reader is now the reporter and the editor.

Therefore it is not about charging for content online. Even Rupert Murdoch or the alliance will find this difficult to accomplish when readers can get your content anywhere for free from multiple sources. It does not matter if it is paraphrased along with the source. There will always be sites and individuals that feature prime content free of charge; you don’t need to go to an established media brand to find it. What media companies need to do is adapt and re-structure their organizations, repackage their content into multimedia pieces, embrace new business models through participation and multiple platforms, take digital risks and experiment.

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