The head honchos of Fairfax Digital have told the advertising industry that the company is considering a user-pays system for content online, but that at the moment what Fairfax broadsheets provide is not special enough to persuade people to pay.

The frank and interesting assessment is in an interview with the advertising trade magazine B&T this week. (Subscription needed to view this content online.)

Fairfax’s director of news and information, Pippa Leary, is quoted as saying that Fairfax would move to a user-pays system “in a flash” to reduce the company’s dependence on classified advertising if sufficiently unique content could be found.

Leary is quoted as saying “At this point in time when we look at our current online set, we don’t see anything that is unique. But that said, if we were to bundle certain information together, we may be able to create an offering that people would be willing to pay for, we are constantly looking at and testing that concept.”

B&T also states that Fairfax has “strong plans” for expanding online news, particularly in rural areas – which suggests that thought is being given to the synergies of the Fairfax-Rural Press merger.

If Fairfax moved towards user-pays model for premium content it would be a replication of the Australian Financial Review’s experiment with its subscription only website.

The rumours within the company are that the results for the AFR have been disappointing to pathetic. I think those of us who care about journalism should hope that this isn’t true, or is only part of the story.

The AFR online is one of the view signs from Fairfax that management believes in the value and power of content as a driver of revenue. The broadsheets, meanwhile, are free-to-air online, and surreptitiously moving towards being free, or very cheap, in hard copy version through the plethora of special subscription deals by which readers can get their fix for as little as $20 a year in some cases.

The broadsheet subscription figures are up – but this is only part of the story. Anyone who opts to receive the paper and who pays something for it – no matter how little – can be counted as a subscriber, and there are no breakdowns available on who pays what.

University students, for example, get the paper for just $20 a year so long as they pick it up on campus. Anyone who has passed by the student unions and seen the piles of papers unclaimed and unread at the end of the day has reason to worry about whether new cheap subscriptions really add up to more readers.

Will people pay? I think Pippa Leary is right. It’s all about uniqueness. Newspapers in any form will have to do what they say they will do – provide in depth material not available elsewhere. That, of course, implies investment in the journalism and the journalists, together with quality journalistic leadership.