What is the value of news?

WSHU, a local NPR affiliate, held a fundraiser today to help financially support their public radio offerings. Aside from promises of entries into a drawing for an iPad 2 and reminders of independence from corporations, the station also implored listeners to consider how often they listen to WSHU. They ought, therefore, to find it worth paying proportionally to how often they listen as they appreciate the value of news, according to one of the speakers.

Of course, this was strictly for voluntary donations, but it raises an interesting point. How much financial value are consumers in fact willing to ascribe to news services? The results of the recent payroll rollout at nytimes.com would seem telling: the majority of consumers are not willing to go above “totally free” for general news. Nytimes.com saw dramatic declines in visitors after introducing their paywall, even though most casual users would not likely hit the twenty story monthly cap. The genie is out of the bottle, and paying for regular news now seems quaint. Who is going to pay a fee to read details of Osama bin Laden’s death when dozens of other sources will have all of that information and more available for free?

Of course, paywalls are not entirely unfeasible, but a news provider needs to have exclusive content to justify it. Consumers are willing to pay for access to the Wall Street Journal because the information it offers is initially exclusive and its target demographic cannot afford to wait for that information to trickle out elsewhere. These sites mange to differentiate themselves substantially enough to justify a charge, but sites like nytimes.com, no matter how professional, offer little that cannot be found elsewhere.

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