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.


  1. Include me out. Now, don't get me wrong. I dearly love Caitlin Moran, as you do. But am I about to shell out for the privilege of spending four minutes reading her column on the Times site instead of spending four minutes doing what I should really be doing? Am I hell as like.

    As with the record industry, and contrary to corporate belief, the blurring of the pay/giveaway lines is not so much the result of dirty doings by copyright-ravaging punters as a "get down with the kids" strategy by the content providers themselves. Most newspaper sites now feature what they call "blog" sections for now-'n'-happenin' (translation: "not subbed") scribblings by their top columnists. What's that all about then? And now, all of a sudden, they want to roll back to whatever the e-quivalent is of a little man bleating "Exclusive!" at the mouth of the tube station, listening with satisfaction as another coin is tossed into his biscuit tin?

    Doomed, I tell you. They're doomed.

  2. I'd rather keep buying the newspaper. I don't look at any newspapers on line. It hurts my eyes.

  3. You're probably right Archie. All the great news dinosaurs will inevitably be supplanted by sources that don't charge their readers and therefore can't pay their writers.

    But that'll be fine, because there will always be corporate PRs, fast-talking snake-oil salesmen and oppressive governments happy to supply press releases to the new breed of news bloggers.

    Verifiable, accountable news sources are a comparatively recenty invention, probably only a couple of hundred years old. Soon we'll be back to the news environment of the first Elizabethan age: Ill-founded gossip, superstition and the occasional state-sponsored online town crier will give us all the information we require.

    Luckily, by then no bastard will be able to read anyway, so that'll all be fine, won't it?

  4. I might be persuaded to pay for my favourite daily newspaper online (not The Times) if there was some iTunes/Paypal-type of micro-payment system. But I don't think my kids would be.

  5. Anonymous11:51 am

    Fortunately for The Times, perhaps more so for The Telegraph, there'll always be a collection of die-hards who'll never be without their hard-copy newspaper.

    For the rest, the internet represents content driven ad sales with very exact page view stats available (with no multipliers used) in real time. In short order, perhaps available now, these stats will include excellent profiling information to go with it. Every comment so far on this page has been submitted by readers with profiles to match - unless you decide to lie, your online identity is a very valuable tool for ad sales executives.

    That The Times thinks it'll be best charging subscriptions says a lot about content (or the lack of it) and more about it's understanding of what the Internet can deliver to a commercial, advertising-driven publisher.

  6. Mikey: "Ill-founded gossip, superstition and the occasional state-sponsored online town crier"

    I know you were being sarcastic but you just described Fox News in the States. Unfortunately they often set the agenda for the rest of the media here who don't seem to think it's their job to point out what's true and what isn't.

  7. This morning I chatted to a colleague who had been at a very high-powered summit with US and UK-based media owners who in her words "were there to tell each other over and over again that this won't be like the music business". Then I had a bite with a friend whose job leads him to be on a board with the CEOs of just about all the major newspaper groups in the UK, none of whom currently charge for content. What do they think of the Murdoch move, enquired my good self, eager to hear it from the horses' mouths so to speak. "Hoping it will work but expecting it not to" came the succint if slightly worrying reply...

  8. Rearrange these words into a well-known phrase:

    out, bottle, is, of, the, Genie.

  9. 10 or 15 years ago I had a somewhat similar idea - sCommerce I called it.

    People who want things go to a building specifically set aside for buying stuff. Once you get there you choose what you like, hand over the appropriate amount of cash (or plastic if you dare) and, wait, this is the good bit, take the stuff away with you there and then.

    No waiting, 3 days for the postman to arrive when you've finally given up waiting and gone to work.

    Not sure it will ever catch on though.