At most conferences I go to, it is almost a Pavlovian response for speakers to say that news is a commodity with relative price of zero. A few brave souls, Emap in B2B media and News International in newspapers are just two, have demanded that their news journalism be paid for.

How can we finally put this argument to bed? A post last week on the New Zealand-based Evolving Newsroom Website, suggested, albeit with it tongue in cheek, that one answer might be to remove news from publications altogether leaving just the ads, the features, the cookery, the fashion, the columnists, and then see what happens to copy sales. The value of the reduction in copy sales is the value of your news, it was argued.

Equally, of course, the reverse would be true. How about only publishing the news and leaving everything else out?

As fascinating as this may be, is anybody really going to try this for real? If you are thinking about it, don’t bother. I did it for real 25 years ago.

These were the days in trade publishing when our pages were stacked with job advertsing. We were-knee deep in high-yield display ads and our editorial teams were 40-strong on a single weekly title. One month, back in 1983 or 1984, our journalists decided to strike. I don’t recall the point of the strike, but in those days that’s what journalists did.

Our magazine was as usual knee-deep in job ads and I was reluctant to lose all that money. I made my case to the management team and we decided to publish a news-free edition. There were just a few articles and the rest was all recruitment ads.

So what do you think happened? We couldn’t measure copy sales (the title was controlled free circulation) but we could measure the ad response. Recruitment advertisers were pretty unforgiving if their ads didn’t work. To everyone’s surprise my phone was hot with advertisers calling to say they were amazed at the increase in response. Without all that messy clutter of news, the response rate to job ads had gone up! With no editorial costs to pay, the profit from that week’s issue was extraordinary.

We could be on to something, I thought. The journalists stayed on strike for a second week. Recruitment advertising bookings went through the roof as word spread that our readers’ attention was now fully focussed on the job ads, not all that worthy but apparently pointless news. It was our largest recruitment pagination ever.

Publication day arrived and I stood by my phone waiting for the congratulatory calls from customers for the second week running. The journalists announced a third week of strike action. What could possibly go wrong?

Read the second part of this article here.

Photo from Zigazou on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence.