Sunday, 9 August 2009

Flogging the dead tree press

Rupert Murdoch announced this week that his News Corp titles would all begin to start charging for their online content. In the UK, this covers The Times, Sunday Times, The Sun and News Of The World. he confidently predicts that where he leads, others will follow. In fairness to the big man, that's been the case in the past - Sky still leads innovation in television, for instance - but this time around I think he may have met his match.

The history of newspapers charging for their online content hasn't been particularly illustrious. Back in the day, many had a model where all their fresh content was free for a day or two then you had to pay to view archive material. While there might be a few die-hard sites out there still plugging away with this, most have ditched archive subscriptions because they generated pennies. Moreover, moving content behind a pay wall, out of reach of search engines and unlinkable by blogs and other sites placed limitations on the number of visitors a site could attract.

There are only two traditional newspapers that make the online subscription model work, namely the (Murdoch-owned) Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and they both point to what you need to pull it off - quality, specialized content, a cut above what your competitors offer. The news and analysis proferred by these newspapers is deemed sufficiently valuable to their readers that they are willing to pay for it.

Unfortunately that simply can't be said for most newspapers, which aren't niche-focused, but more general in scope. Taking Murdoch's UK titles, none of them offer content of a similar or better standard that can't be found elsewhere for free, so where's the incentive for anyone to pay for them? I think Murdoch's competitors might be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of his newspapers disappearing over that pay wall.

The free availability of online news has also demaged brand loyalty. The typical reader of printed newspapers always buys the same one or two titles and rarely strays, except perhaps when their usual read has sold-out. Online, people may have their favourite sites, but they are for more likely to go to others, as that's just the nature of the medium.

For general newspapers online, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. To start charging for what is now free is both technically impractical and commercially unviable.

That said, there is an issue that needs addressing and Murdoch's intervention might just pulls some heads out the sand. Most newspapers make a loss from their online offerings, other just a tiny profit. The advertising-funded model most newspapers have adopted isn't really working. For online newspapers to survive there needs to be consolidation and, perhaps, de-commercialisation of the market.

Firstly, consolidation. Truth is that there are far too many newspapers, particularly in the UK. Do we really need both a Daily Mail and a Daily Express, a Sun and a Star, a Telegraph and a Times? If some of these titles were to fall by the wayside it would increase advertising revenues to those that survived and bring many of them into profit. Whether or not those profits would be sufficient for publishers is a another matter.

If it proves impossible to generate sufficient profit from online news then maybe it's time to de-commercialize some elements of the sector and remove the profit motive. When it comes to the bottom line, populism earns and journalism burns. Look at television, where populist shows like soaps and light-drama bring in the money, but the worthy stuff like arts programming and documentaries more often costs. This 'highbrow' programming surivives in the UK largely thanks to the BBC, which is publically funded.

There's a strong case that proper, broadsheet-style journalism would be best preserved by a funding model different to tabloid journalism. Tabloid journalism is cheaper to produce and attracts more readers and more advertisers. It can be made commercially viable. Weightier journalism, like television documentaries and arts programming, needs help, which is why I think that something akin to charitable trusts may provide a vehicle for funding such journalism in the future. It would remove the imperative to be profitable and allow journalists and writers to focus on simply producing quality content. It might even go some way to restoring the profession's tarnished reputation.

Getting newspapers from where they are now to where I think they should be won't be easy though and it may be that it will take a few newspapers to go out of business to compel any meaningful changes. Either they will evolve, or they will die. Inertia isn't an option.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can see Murdoch's rationale - this year he's lost like $3 billion instead of making 6, so he feels the need to make some of it back. He looks around, sees that he's giving away his papers for free online, so there's an obvious place to go for more money.

Like you say though, he may have led the way in the past, but this move shows he's past it, he has lost his magic touch - he doesn't understand enough about how to make money out of the internet.

The thing about news is that it will always be available on the internet for free, somewhere. Even if every major UK newspaper went behind a paywall tomorrow, someone would step in to fill the void, would take all the visitors, and would make a killing.

About the only thing most of his papers have going for them is their unique mix of news and girls - both of which are abundant, better and free elsewhere. The only time I've been to any of Murdoch's sites in the past year was at Christmas to collect excellent (but disappointingly low-res) photos of girls in santa outfits.

People will be pushed away - they'll resent having to pay for something that was once free, and will simply go elsewhere. Once they find an alternative source, it will be much more difficult - if not impossible - to get them to return if you remove the paywall. I predict this venture will be an unmitigated disaster for Murdoch's papers' online presence. Yay.