Paid content debate peels new layers in an industry torn by influence and profits


IIfluence versus profits.

Sounds like an academic debate, doesn't it?

Yet as we usher in a new year, this simple stand-off is at the heart of agonising debates within newspapers about whether to put up barriers to content.

A publisher of a mid-sized daily laughed when I asked what business he's in. “Profit” – so put up the pay wall if that's what is necessary.

A senior executive at a major North American newspaper said his company is “absolutely opposed” to erecting barriers to content because their charter stresses they are in business to influence society. Said the executive of this Top 10 daily: “We'd be happy to make 5% margins and continue to influence. For that reason, we will remain all about volume, volume, volume.”

And now we peel back another layer of an industry we thought we knew.

These “academic debates” are being hashed out in very un-academic settings these days: board rooms of major newsmedia companies. This is not a staff issue or even a management issue. It's an ownership issue.

Everyone wants a profit. Everyone wants to influence. But what's the percentage? Is it 70% influence and 30% profit? Is it 50%-50%? I know newspapers that exist only for financial reasons – fair enough.

If you're an elite newspaper owned or controlled by a family or trust, cutting off Googlejuice may cut straight to the heart of vision and mission. Or perhaps you're a company with many newspapers, and you determine these name mastheads are influence brands and these are cash cows.

Cruel, but true.

What the industry debate has revealed is that not all daily newspapers are the same. Different visions, different missions, different reasons for being.

And the reason for being goes straight to the heart of how brands get marketed.

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