American Culture

'Premium content': What is it, who decides, and how?

I detest the phrase premium content. Like much of the poorly thought-out jargon descended from news management gurus and consultants, its definition lies in the mind of the speaker. It’s not alone: For example, product has replaced news as the reason for a journalism organization’s existence. Add repurposing to the list of agenda-hiding argot that hides a rarely disclosed intent.

I’m not sure what premium content is. But I’m dead sure I won’t be able to see it unless I’m willing to pay for it. That’s one yardstick for the premium goods: stuff you’re willing for pay for online vs. stuff that’s offered free. But that definition doesn’t tell you what you’ll get when you decide to buy.

So many questions: How will news organizations define premium content? Will the yardstick be merely popularity? Will the product be algorithmically judged as important news and thus become premium content? Will be the premium stuff be solely defined as Wall Street Journal-style information that leads to investment and profit for those who have the dough to spare? Who pins on the label based on what standards? Will news websites clearly explain what premium content is — and how they decided on the standards?

Will premium content be narrowly defined niches of news? For example, much of what continues to financially float small- to medium-sized dailies is local sports. In sports, local names are news. Parents, grandparents, and friends want to know how the kids did in that thriller overtime game against East Overshoe.

Will local sports become premium content guarded by a paywall? I don’t want to be the editor fielding those angry calls or warding off the fury in the comment threads.

When I first heard the phrase paywall (as poorly constructed a PR effort as it’s possible to generate), I had imagined a circular moat. Heathens like me who don’t pay would not be able to bridge the beancounter-filled waters that encircled the good stuff — all the content. All of it.

Now, it seems, news management types are experimenting with modified, soft, shifting, or permeable paywalls. You can swim through part of the moat, chowing down on school lunch menus and the occasional planning board story, before being confronted with the impermeable wall between you and the premium content. The paywall, it appears, is moving to surrounding small islands of profitable, premium niches rather than walling off the entire castle.

Who will decide what niches get labeled as premium content? On what basis? How will that vary from paper to paper? Will profitable premium content induce management to invest some of that profit to improve the free (i.e., non-premium) content? (Okay, okay, hold down the laughter, please.)

For the time being, a good bet about the difference between premium content and its evil twin — non-premium content — is this: An unpaid intern wrote the stuff you don’t have to pay to read (or see). And you’ll find plenty of errors in that free stuff. And it’s not likely to be that interesting.

But eventually we (those who wish to consume news and those who wish to provide it) will have to figure out what’s worth paying for and what’s worth providing. Until we collectively do, the business of journalism remains imperiled.

Deciding what to pay for is something we need to understand. It would be behoove news management types to be transparent in that planning.

Explain paywall decisions to us clearly. Tell us how pricey premium content supports the accountability journalism that a functioning democracy needs. Be straight with the readers. Baffle us with bullshit, and you’re unlikely to make enough money to survive.

We’ll all be losers if you fail.

3 replies »

  1. Not sure about this. If newspapers do not find a viable revenue model, then newspapers will fail. It’s that simple. If that requires them to designate some content as premium, and of course that will be demand based not quality based, then so be it. It seems to me the real villain in this battle are the internet pioneers who trained everyone that content should be free. That happened in television, and it quickly devolved into an ad-supported medium with mediocre content (after an intial burst of quality.) It took 75 years for the industry to find a pay-for-content model that worked (and as a result we have improving content-HBO, etc.)

  2. I agree with you about the villains. But the news industry did not have to follow suit during their earlier explorations of the Web as a delivery vehicle. They played their hand foolishly by agreeing with the “information is free” credo of the nascent Web.

    It is increasingly likely, at least to me, that the current emerging business models are coalescing around partial pay walls. I just don’t think that’s going to work. It hews to the same foolishness: We’ll give you stuff for free.

    Walmart doesn’t do that. Why should news businesses?

  3. I shouldn’t say this but I’ve obtained user names and passwords for subscriptions to top publications that shall go nameless just by looking around the web. Also, a site called bugmenot occasionally works.