Arizona Guardian News Site Wants Readers to Pay for Content; Concept is Wishful Thinking Among News Outlets

The Arizona Guardian online news outfit that we told you about after its launch last month has gone to a sort of pay-per-view format and now wants up to $150 a month from subscribers.

For that lofty price, four former East Valley Tribune staffers (with help from their sponsor, Democratic consultant Bob Grossfeld) will provide bill tracking services and instant messages when lawmakers do something interesting. Subscribers who just want to read the result of the ex-Tribbers' "extraordinary reporting" can sign up for $30 per month.

The subscription-based format begins immediately. Clicking on the Guardian's headline "Budget cuts spread..." only gets the would-be reader a form to fill out to buy a subscription package.

One month was an awfully short amount of time to introduce readers to the Guardian's work before this demand for payment. But as the news outlet notes, "our families really prefer that we begin generating at least some income."

As everyone knows, though, Internet users prefer free. Daily news articles, especially, hold very little value among computer users because free online news is so abundant. As a recent article by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University on the subject pointed out, the key for upstarts like the Guardian will be to offer something unique:

What newspapers need to do is find ways of creating content that is more valuable than the perishable daily news -- either by finding material that no one else has, or packaging it in a certain way, or by creating relationships around that content that draw people in -- so that their readers either volunteer to pay, or spend more time with that content and as a result become more valuable to advertisers.

Whether the Guardian's modest smorgasbord of services like tracking the progress of bills for lazy lobbyists (the same basic info can be had for free on the legislature's Web site) will entice subscribers seems about as likely as finding life on Mars. But the Arizona Capitol Times' Yellow Sheet does the same sort of thing and manages to hold its head above water. If the Guardian's plan is successful, though, it probably will be because of the non-journalistic services.

Still, the concept of pay-per-view journalism has its proponents. Steve Brill, the entrepreneurial journalist who started Court TV, says in a column today that Web site need to stop "training" people to expect news for free. His idea is based on micro-payments of 10 cents for article, five cents to forward an article to a friend, etc. Micro-payments as the saviors of journalism were also the subject of a New York Times opinion piece last week. 

There's just one problem with all of these ideas:

Newspapers have already tried charging online users for their content. With few exceptions, It doesn't work.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.