I’m seeing a fair amount of hubbub lately about a Pew study stating that (gasp!) people generally don’t want to pay for online news.  While there are many, many versions of the story, the one that came through my inbox was from, of all places, PC World.

The article tells the now-familiar bleak story of a broken business model and dwindling revenue, and then laments that it seems unlikely that people will want to pay for news online.

I can state with experience that there are several extremely intelligent people in various media companies who believe that people would indeed cough up a few dollars a month to do just that, and I hope this study finally dissuades them from said belief.  The thing is, those people are just a subset of a much larger group who think that the solution to local media’s problem can be found by focusing on content in the first place.

Now calm down, I’m not saying content isn’t important.  No media model can work without it, even Google’s.  What I’m saying is that the content isn’t really the problem, and until media outlets realize this and start focusing their new-media initiatives on solving their actual issue, we’ll have to keep reading articles like the one above.

News Flash for the News Guys:  The actual core business of local media, be it radio, TV or print, is not, nor has it ever been, content.  The core business is advertising.

Shaking your head?  Think about it.  The total amount spent by everyone in America for the privilege of  watching Walter Cronkite for the entire span of his decades long career is exactly $0.00.  People pay that same $0.00 to watch NBC4 or listen to KFI640 in Los Angeles, and they pay a few cents a day to get the LA Times.  In the case of the paper what they’re really paying for is a physical object, and frankly for a lot of people the only reason that even flies is because they’ve been paying for it since before they had a choice where they got their news, and it hasn’t occurred to them to stop.  Why anyone would expect people would tolerate paying for online news in a world where these things are true is beyond me.

From the above, one might even postulate that local media outlets aren’t even in the content business at all.  In a radio or TV station budget, content is listed as an expense, and there’s no corresponding line item for revenue earned.  It’s a little more debatable in print, but I’d argue that newspapers are actually selling ink, paper, and a home delivery service, not just content, if content at all.  The fact that people aren’t willing to pay for the exact same content online would seem to support this perspective.

Local media outlets monetize the content they produce via their actual business, which is advertising,.  It is only by addressing the problems in this area that they can save themselves.

The core problem with traditional media on the internet, in my opinion, is that they’ve mainly been trying to simply move their old model online, but it’s a different world.  Put in its most simple terms, that model boils down to expecting advertisers to pay for the media outlet to drive their audience to their own website.

Think about that for a second.  Would a store owner pay for a direct mail campaign that encouraged those in receipt to show up at the office of the company that sent it out?  Probably not.  It would get even sillier if the provider’s office was painstakingly designed to get people to stay as long as possible but had pictures on the wall (in some of the rooms, anyway) inviting people to the store when they were finished.

Now go to virtually ANY radio, TV or newspaper website.   The above is essentially the scenario the media company expects their advertisers to tolerate, and their sales department to sell.  There are probably many reasons why this is the case, but it seems like this is another instance of key decision makers believing themselves to be in the content business, and thinking that war is the one they need to be fighting.

The solution seems simple enough.  Media companies need to focus the energies of their interactive groups on figuring out ways to drive audience to their ADVERTISERS.  People who buy advertising want exactly one thing:  To sell their product.  That product may be online, that product may be in a store, that product may even be an event, but at the end of the day getting it sold is their only priority.

The media outlet’s job is to influence consumer behavior on behalf of its clients, who are emphatically not there because of content.  The content is the first part of that process, not the whole.  Also, for the process to work at all the content must be available to as wide an audience as possible, and that means keeping it free.  To do otherwise goes contrary to 100 years of history, and people will just start getting their news from someone with a clearer idea of what business they’re in.

Suffice it to say, I’m not sure why the Pew Study is news at all.

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