It has taken the worst advertising slump in memory but news publishers are finally trying to do what they should have attempted years ago: convince readers accustomed to a complimentary all-you-can-eat buffet that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Rupert Murdoch last week announced plans to erect a pay wall around News Corp’s online empire. Journalism Online, another paid news initiative, this week said it would soon test paid business models with “leading global news websites”.

Such experimentation is welcome. Specialist publishers have long charged for content online. But Apple’s success in digital music has shown that many consumers are also willing to pay for content they could otherwise get for free, provided they get a superior experience in return. While pirated tunes still account for most online music activity, Apple has sold more than 5bn songs through iTunes since it launched in 2003. Clearly, not all information “wants to be free”.

One lesson for publishers is that Apple’s seamless technology makes it easy to enjoy music online. Paying for news should be similarly frictionless. The success of iTunes also owes much to customers’ ability to listen to their songs on Apple’s highly profitable iPods and iPhones, one reason media executives are increasingly excited about devices such as Sony’s e-book reader and Amazon’s Kindle.

Online games may also hold lessons for publishers. Just as World of Warcraft awards “honour points” to subscribers as they advance in the game, clever publishers could offer credits or other incentives to keep readers engaged.

None of this means that convincing customers to pay for news will be easy. General news sites face a particular challenge, given the multitude of free alternatives. But if publishers can crack the problem, it will be a story worth reading about.

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