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Friday, March 26, 2010

I predict the future of charging for news

The Times launch their experiment in June. I'm told that if their traffic drops to 5% of what it is at the moment, that's a result. If it goes lower they have a problem. The other newspaper groups either hope it works, then they can do the same, or pretend not to care because they're boldly predicting an ad-funded future where "new models" spring up like daffodils in spring.

Let's say it doesn't work. Let's say the take-up is 3%, it doesn't prove a fashionable thing to do, the name writers desert because they want to remain name writers and the Times and Sunday Times have to go back to the current state of affairs. Let's remind ourselves what that means: paid copy sales dropping inexorably, largely because the occasional reader who wants to read a match report or what they said about his employer, goes to the newspaper's site; on the advertising front they continue swapping off-line pounds for on-line pennies; they can't compete with Google, Facebook and any other monsters of aggregation. They keep cutting budgets and staffing, cancel print contracts and steadily reduce their distribution.

But their "product", if that's what original, professionally executed news is, remains popular. In fact the traffic to their sites goes up and up, speeded by new means of delivery. Then, one day, when I'm in a bath chair staring out at the English Channel, some bright spark in one of these organisations will pipe up, possibly at a conference (held on site because they can no longer afford a hotel), with the following:

"Since our research tells us that the thing people really value about what we do is the news, which the BBC only really scratches the surface of, why don't we just take the hard information, exclusive features and compelling comment, find a printing press somewhere and start publishing the best of it in a daily paper? Then we sell it. Some people would pay to have the core of what we do delivered to them in a form that's portable, easily navigable and requires no energy source. And at the same time, why don't we wrong foot the competition by not giving the same material away on our site? Because if they couldn't get it for free, might not some people feel that they ought to buy it?"

Just a thought.