“Who started this rumour that all information should be free and why didn’t we challenge this when it first came out?” – Anne Moore, chief executive, Time Inc, March 2009
“There is no such thing as a free news story” – Rupert Murdoch
Wise, or flippant words from Murdoch and Anne Moore; can news really sit behind a paywall? It is like shifting the tide or causing the earth to spin the other way around on its axis. Well possibly not quite as dramatic as that, but it is unnatural. The question is whether people will be willing to pay for online content?
This is not a new idea. It has been batting around newsrooms for year ever since Doc Martens were first in – I had a cherry red pair in the mid-nineties, but I am not quite willing to admit that they are back in fashion now.
What has come back into fashion again, is charging for online content. It has become a hot topic, a key trend and possibly a solution for the drop in newspaper sales. Rupert Murdoch has committed to constructing paywalls around News Corp papers, which will leave The Daily Mirror jumping for joy. If you can no longer go to The Sun to get your page 3 lovely – where is the next point of call?
Shane Richmond’s blog hosted on The Telegraph discusses this issue:
“As we know, readers will pay provided there isn’t a free alternative of sufficient quality available. Quality, as always, is a relative term and there will always be an alternative.”
So, can it work? Are the days of free content now over?
If some papers, like The Times begin charging for their news content, it will drive those loving unique users into the beautiful arms of an aggregator, such as killer Google or another free news website. It is estimated that The Times may lose up to anywhere between 80% and 95% of their traffic once pay walls have been introduced.
Google, Google Chrome, Google Reader, Google Wave and even the verb Google. Google has grown and benefited from the demise of the newspaper. The media is now at a critical point.
Do we wait for the advertising economy to get back on board with print, or do we start charging for our work? (Speaking of which, do you think anyone would pay for this?)
The future of print advertising looks bleak. It is now widely assumed that the money once gained from ads in newspapers and magazines has gone, and will never come back.
Let’s dig deep into the pockets of this story then –
I think we can all agree that specialist magazines and newspapers such as the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal can happily sit behind a paywall:
a) because they have a loyal and dedicated audience seeking specialist news
b) because we all know bankers have very big pockets
These models work because people who sign up to them need news that is specific to them. They can rely on the FT to be informative and accurate. How would I feel if Media Guardian sat behind a paywall? Well, I would probably be willing to fork out for that too.
Consumers have been raised on a default position of receiving free news. If you miss the 10 o’clock news one night you can log onto the BBC and catch up instantly, quickly and cheaply. If you forget to pop to the local shop for your copy of The Guardian or The Daily Mail before getting to work, the first thing you do when you log on in the morning is to visit their site and catch up with what’s going on in the world.
Where is the incentive to buy the newspaper?
It is rather romantic to think that people want the tangible product anymore. Rob Andrew, the UK editor for paidContent said that in a survey carried out by paidContent and Harris Interactive over 74% of people would find another free site to view their news. When a barrier is put up, we move around it.
But more worryingly than that, when asked how much people were willing to pay for news, the answer was very little. For example, for a one-off article most people would only be willing to pay 1p-2p. Something tells me that newspapers are not going to boost their revenue by an extra penny or two.
Charging for online content may not work in the way that Murdoch wants and what will happen to newspapers and the paywall model remains to be seen.
But things are moving. This morning, Google announced that they will allow publishers of paid content to reduce the amount of free access internet users have to their sites from Google News.
The London Evening Standard which recently became a freesheet paper announced that they are planning to raise distribution levels to 800,000.
For better or for worse, the times, they are a changing. The key is to try and save good journalism and not necessarily, the newspaper.
I shall leave you with Bob Dylan whose words ring as true today, as they did then.