charge for content online. Once news was available for free, there was
no going back, at least according to popular wisdom. That's why no one
is willing to pay for online news, according to the conventional wisdom.
Varian has a more interesting explanation. He presented a slide of
Google search data, in which the amount of Google Web search activity
in general was compared with amount of activity on Google news over the
course of the week.
It turns out, that compared
with Web search access, Google news access goes up during the day, down
in the evening, and way, way down over the weekend. This data is
consistent with the results of other studies that indicate Americans
still spend much more time with print newspapers than they do with news
online -- one Nielsen study found that Internet users spent an average of 38 minutes total per month
on newspaper sites. "What that says to me is that reading the news
online is a worktime activity. ... Most people aren't paid to sit at a
computer and read newspapers. They're snatching things throughout the
day," Varian said.
Well, duh. But Varian makes a good point: People who click on a news article or a video at work as a distraction
from other tasks aren't going to want to pay for it. People are willing
to pay for newspapers not because they're used to paying, according to
Varian, but because "It's a much nicer experience to sit there with a
newspaper and a cup of coffee and have that be your leisure time
To the extent that reading an actual newspaper is an
activity in itself, Varian argued, people are willing to pay for it, in
a way they aren't willing to pay for a couple minutes of distraction at
work. So the challenge for newspapers would be to reinvent a
way to make reading news a leisure-time activity. Then -- and only
then -- will readers be willing to pay for content.
This, of course, is the grand hope that motivated the journalistic excitement over the announcement
of the iPad this Wednesday. If Steve Jobs could make the way people
read news pleasurable enough, journalists hoped, maybe people would be
willing to pay for it.
Varian's explanation sharpens this logic
and suggests an interesting a work time/leisure time, won't pay/will
pay divide that could be useful to mainstream newspapers as they try to
over Google News, Varian painted a very rosy picture of the
Google/newspaper interaction, noting that 35 to 40 percent of traffic
is coming to news sites through search engines.
Not that ad revenue from clicks has provided the answer for news organizations so far.