The payment dilemma won’t end until brands pinpoint their value

Reportage, editing and aggregation are still valued attributes of the media but for audiences, the brand premiums lie elsewhere

One of the biggest debates in the interactive media sector this year has been around payment for content. A lot of the noise has come from the industry formerly known as print, partly because of Rupert Murdoch’s statement early this year that all his online properties would start charging for content, and partly because the media loves to write about itself.

This is not to diminish the scale of the issue. In the US particularly, the combination of a slump in advertising due to the recession and the failure of online revenues to make up for the decline offline as readers switch to internet sources of news, opinion and entertainment has led to the closure of long-established newspapers and the switch of others to purely online. In the UK, Murdoch’s move had led to feverish debate about whether people will pay for news online, and if so, what kind of news they will pay for. One of the most interesting aspects of this discussion has been its focus on content to the exclusion of almost everything else.

But when you buy a newspaper, what exactly are you paying for? Not just a bundle of content, some of which you won’t read. You’re also paying for the service being provided, the aggregation and editing of that content. And by extension, you’re buying into the brand, identifying yourself as the sort of person who reads The Guardian, The Sun or whatever.

And it’s these media brands that seem as though they’re being ignored in the shuffle. Even at the Financial Times, head of ft.com Rob Grimshaw steadfastly defends his site’s hybrid approach in the face of dogmatic critics who insist it should go either all free or all paid, but he rarely talks in terms of the brand. Instead, he concentrates on the fact that the number of people the FT estimates should be reading the paper is a fraction of the number of unique visitors that were coming to its site when it was all free-to-air. Grimshaw argues that the people the payment wall excludes aren’t valuable to advertisers, so shutting them out means better targeting and an extra revenue stream.

Does this mean media brands have lost their value in the online world? We know that people will pay for content online if they can see its value. This means that it has to be essential to them in some way, which is the rationale for papers like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times charging. The more general argument against charging people for news asks why people should pay when they can get it elsewhere for free.

The idea that the news in, say, The Guardian and The Sun is the same and interchangeable is clearly absurd. The difficult question is whether people are prepared to pay for the aggregation and editing implicit in the brand’s identity, and if so, how much. If no one is prepared to pay, then the brands have no value.

But both anecdotally and in research carried out by New Media Age, it seems that people do place a value on the roles of aggregation and editing. They want someone they trust to go through all the stuff that’s out there and bring anything that’s relevant to them into one place. They will probably want to delve into certain stories more deeply than the paper or magazine might, and they will equally probably want to augment the magazine’s reporting with other sources, but the number of people who want to take on all their own newsgathering is small.

This is where you would expect a media brand’s identity to be paramount. The idea that the news in, say, The Guardian and The Sun is the same and interchangeable, and is interchangeable with that from any other online news source, is clearly absurd. The difficult question is whether people are prepared to pay for the aggregation and editing implicit in the brand’s identity, and if so, how much. If no one is prepared to pay, then the brands have no value.

This is a situation we’ve seen elsewhere online. The rise of social media and the way it allows people to share views and information has put pressure on brands as never before. The focus has shifted away from the brand and onto the individual product or service it delivers, leaving brands vulnerable to any misstep in that delivery. Think Kryptonite bike locks, which has spawned a multitude of copycats. This is not to say that brands are dead. If a definition of a brand’s strength is its ability to charge a premium for a product that is not obviously functionally superior to its competitors, there are clearly still strong brands out there. But by that definition media brands are looking shaky.

This is why publishers are placing more emphasis on community. The Guardian’s dating service, for example, works because of the sense of identity the paper’s readers have, the feeling of belonging to a club. Meanwhile, content is still the best targeting tool, allowing groups to form around content and create their own is very powerful. The brands still have value, but the premiums they command are paid in other places.

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