Paid content on iPads: Mistaking a rerun for a ‘do over’

Behold the iPad in All Its Glory

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You hear a lot of newspaper execs and editors talking about getting a “do over” with iPads and other tablets with the opportunity to create subscription content instead of relying solely on advertising-supported content business models.

This line of argument goes: Since newspapers made the “mistake” of putting all their content the Web for free to begin with, it has been impossible to switch to a pay model after realizing that Internet advertising will never generate anything close to the same level of revenue as print advertising.

The problem is the scarcity (or monopoly in most cases) print advertising enjoys just doesn’t exist with advertising on websites. Of course, that rich print advertising model is in decline, in large part, thanks to the economics of online advertising.

With the introduction of the iPad less than three quarters ago, newspapers have eyed that platform as having the potential to make a pay model successful, which automatically affects the strategy of their websites (Web browser Safari on the iPad displays most news websites quite well, thank you).

Thus, the “do over” line of reasoning.

But in truth, it looks more like a rerun. Many pioneeering news organizations who went online in the late 1980s did start out with a pay model or a revenue sharing model based on someone else’s subscription model. Remember Prodigy, AOL, CompuServe and local BBS systems? Later, some bundled Internet access as they made the switch to Web, most notably the newspapers that resold the Infinet Internet service.

Those efforts lost favor and were abandoned when it became obvious that websites offering content for free with advertising were going to garner the audience. Newspapers weren’t last to the free Internet party, but they did play catch up.

The “do over” strategy portends a rerun of that misstep. Do you expect Huffington Post, Patch, Examiner, or Gawker to adopt pad tablet models? And if newspapers go the paid route on the iPad and other tablets and get left behind by the audience, would they be able to catch up once again by junking paid for free? Musings, perhaps, for another day.

Less one believe I’m totally into the Kool-Aid of “Information Wants to Be Free,” I do believe there are paid content opportunities for newspapers in the digital world, but re-shoveling prnt to Web to tablet and smart phone isn’t among them.

I think the opportunities involve deep drive, niche content or platform user experiences that create substantial (i.e. worth paying for) value to the consumer. Products with both may have the best chance of success.

Paid content cheerleaders need to fashion smart, stylish “new ‘dos” instead of tired “do overs.”

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