News Is an Experiential Good; Or, Why it’s not like buying a pair of pants

When you buy a pair of pants, you try them on first. You want to make sure they fit. So clothing stores give up scarce retail space to enclose little spaces that are no good for displaying their trendy threads. They’re called dressing rooms, of course. If there were a store that rejected the idea that we should be able to try on our pants before we buy them, we’d reject the store. We’d protest that we’re worried about wasting our money on pants that we don’t like, and we’d threaten to go elsewhere. “Sizes and cuts and feels are too hard to predict,” we’d complain. “I really like your Sevens, but I’m not sure I’ll love them. What if I my hips are too big?”

One really seriously unfortunate fact about the news is you can’t very well try on an article before you read it. Sure, you can read the teaser, the first paragraph, or the pull quotes. Maybe there’s a cute sidebar or attractive graphics with catchy captions. But you don’t really know whether you and the article will make a great match till after you’ve already read the thing.

This is an age-old case study in brands. That’s why every issue of the New Yorker or the Economist or Cosmo or Men’s Health or Maximall seem vaguely, surreally the same, issue after issue, cover after cover, or cartoon after cartoon. High brow or low—the economics are the same. It’s their way of informing their reader that reading the last issue is a little bit like trying the new issue on for size. If you liked our work before, you’ll like it again. It’s different, but it’s really the same.

That’s one reason why Steve Brill’s “secret plan to save the New York Times and journalism itself” is flawed. I don’t have the resources to offer a top-to-bottom critique, so I’ll focus on one point. One the one hand, “All online articles will cost 10 cents each to read in full, with simple, one-step purchases powered by an I-Tunes-like Journalism infrastructure.” And on the other, “There would be a five cent charge to forward an article to someone else. Paying customers would get a license to do that” when they set up their accounts.

If the pants analogy suggests that it’s hard to charge for content before the consumer experiences it, what does it say about paying for it after? That’s essentially what this recommendation feature would be, after all. And I think it’s far from obviously crazy.

Maybe many people would be willing to pay five cents to forward the full text of an article to a pal. But it’s important to remember that what you’re doing when you recommend an article to a buddy. You’re trying it on, testing it out. You’re decreasing your pal’s risk that he’ll read the article and conclude he wasted his time. In short, you’re adding value, helping both the publisher and presumably your pal too.

This is of course ultimately why people are so hot to trot about linking, curating, aggregating, filtering, etc. It’s the economics of attention in a world of blooming, buzzing, atomized media. (UPDATE: It’s “superdistribution.”) So it would be awesome if a newspaper could get people to pay in order to add value to their content. But to the extent that charging for the ability to make recommendations will actually disincentivize them from adding that value, there’s an important bit of cost-benefit analysis to do.

Of course, people could still recommend the article without paying the five-cent fee, leaving their pals to sign up and pay ten cents if they’re not already customers, but I wonder whether that wouldn’t turn out to seem just rude in light of the fact that you and your pal probably have basically the same purchasing power with respect to five- or ten-cent articles.

Finally, I’ll repeat that this is why I’m so bullish on the proposition that journalists need to find in-demand scarce goods and services whose value is relatively easily quantified before the point of purchase. This is what I was thinking about in my recent post “Freemium News,” which was itself a reaction to Mitch Ratcliffe’s excellent thoughts on “the economics of great journalism.” My sense is that forwarding articles for free might be the kind of discrete, non-experiential feature for which someone might be willing to pay a flat upfront fee.

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