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From publisher to mogul, the frequent mantra from up high lately has been that the future for news media online will increasingly require payment for content. Big papers simply can’t afford to keep shelling out the money to pay the high price of reporting while competitors “borrow” the costly facts for free and customers bounce from site to site with little loyalty to anything other than the fastest copy editor and the first to report. The big question, though, is: who will pay? And what will they pay for.. or how much?

According to Barry Diller, IAC’s (NASDAQ:IACI) chairman and CEO, “anything of value is going to be paid for” online. People have paid for content before and they’ll continue to. That’s what he said in a keynote at the Advertising 2.0 conference in New York, Wednesday.

Not all would agree, however. Or they’ll hone in on the definition of one key word: “value,” and make that the battleground.

While it’s true advertising can’t, and won’t be a cure-all that pays for all costs and provides all revenue, it’s not clear what value propositions are necessary to lure a customer used to getting an overload of free information into opening their wallet and paying for the privilege.

How do you stand out from an increasingly large pool of news and information? How unique does content have to be? Is it factual reporting that customers will chase or is interpretive analysis that adds color and detail the key part? And who will deliver these in consistent quality for a fair price? If they pay, will customers prefer to pay via a micro-transaction, or will subscription be the choice? Will distribution be the factor? Will they pay for mobile distribution but scoff at paying to access a website that used to be free? Quality, format, consistency, substance…. Nobody knows what it will take. It’s an issue for the biggest of brands, and the small.

To test one theory, Gannett’s (NYSE:GCI) USA Today has announced that they will try charging readers for the email delivery of an electronic version of the paper come August. According to the AP, the price will be “slightly less” than the print edition. The USAToday.com website, however, won’t fall behind the subscription curtain.

Would you pay for another daily delivery to an already crowded email box? I don’t think I would. And even if the mailbox wasn’t bursting…. it is hard to imagine the user experience being approachable enough to draw me in.

The offering sounds a little like a science project…. But then, nobody has figured out a clear path through media’s ongoing digital evolution. There’s a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. The print industry’s struggles are only getting worse.

To quote Rupert Murdoch, "“We are in the midst of a shift from an industrial society to an information society. And the news and entertainment industry is right in the centre of the maelstrom…”

Throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, like Gannett’s doing, is probably better than idly, and passively, watching the world change but it’s hardly a bold step to get out in front of a changing paradigm. For all these questions, building new solutions is probably going to take a little more creativity and a lot more innovation than just changing the packaging, or tweaking the delivery format.

Source: Gannett's Experiment: Will People Pay for Digital News Media?