There is a good piece in the Guardian today on why the iPad might not save newspapers (thanks to Paul Miller for the pointer). This passage from near the end of the article is perhaps the best description of modern attitudes to news that I’ve seen:
It’s … easy to jump from one news source to another, because digital has fundamentally changed people’s relationship with printed news sources. Once, a newspaper was not just a source of information, but a statement of identity, where most buyers would not dream of picking up a competing title. Now, in an era where identities are altogether more protean, and when any app can disappear from view at a single touch, it is not obvious that people will simply sit down and spend 20 minutes engaged in silent contemplation over a single title. It’s not how the modern mind works.
The key point here is that we now read news to source information, not to confirm identity, which means the source is only important as to it’s integrity (and maybe sympathy with our politics) and switching costs are much lower – meaning there is less point in paying for content.
The implication for news brands is that they should cultivate a reputation for integrity rather than think of themselves as destination sites. The upside from this approach is that the brand is then more powerful for driving revenues from alternative activities like conferences, and maybe commerce.
The other reason for making content free is that people are then able to share links with their friends, making them more likely to read it in the first place and also helping to propagate the brand.