Sunday, July 04, 2010

An open letter to Rupert Murdoch on the erection of the Times paywall

Dear Rupert

I know you've been waiting to hear what I think about the reality of The Times and Sunday Times being behind a paywall. Fair enough. I don't expect you take much notice of much of the hot air this has generated in the blogosphere but, hey, us press barons must stick together.

Obviously, I'd love to see your pay plan work because the alternative is cloud cuckoo land. The idea that this news-for-free shemozzle is all going to work out OK at some unspecified point in the future is as transparent a nonsense as has ever been peddled by grown adults to other grown adults. This is a rum revolution we're going through and no mistake. For a start there are no revolutionaries. There are just a load of salaried employees being paid to spend other people's money until it runs out. There's no end of freeloading end users who haven't got a clue how close that is to happening. Finally there's a bunch of academics standing on the sidelines shouting for more money to be hurled on the bonfire. It's only people like you and, to an extent so minuscule as to be invisible, me who have got any skin in this particular game. So, Rupe (may I call you Rupe?) I'd love to see it work and to that end you'll be personally relieved to learn that I've signed up, paid my footling pound, handed over my credit card details and waited to see how it feels to be a paying customer of a web site. It's only been 48 hours but already I feel something.

I feel The Guardian should have done it first. The Guardian would have been in a stronger position to charge because its core readers think everyone else is lying to them and their choice of paper is an announcement of who they are. The Guardian would have found it quite easy to say, pay for this site or the armies of the night will triumph. But they didn't. They're over there watching with interest with their fingers crossed so tightly it's cutting off their circulation.

The Times is a paper that covers the same things as The Guardian but is read primarily by people who don't want to read anything written by the people at The Guardian. On the news stand its key strength is what it doesn't have. This is fine on the news stand. It's less valuable in the invisible world of on-line. Once you've paid for admittance to The Times on-line you want to feel your money has bought you access to something less vanilla than the basic editorial proposition of the paper. You also realise that a newspaper (as in the news on paper) has to be a balanced proposition. Little bit of this, bit more of that, not too much of the other. That doesn't apply so much on-line where density is all. At the moment this site feels like a lite bite rather than a rich storehouse of treasure.

What else might it provide? I don't know but I suspect that it's more raw meat, more provocative even intemperate opinion, material that doesn't feel it's been edited to fit a half-page gap, lots more photos and a lot more edge than we're getting at the moment.

You of all people, Rupes baby, will be aware that the newspaper that's currently running away with it on-line is the Daily Mail and that while your home page right now is rotating a number of nice-to-read "top stories" including Nadal winning Wimbledon, how the market might behave tomorrow, MI5 looking for Russian sleepers and the latest goings on in the Coalition, the Mail is clearly leading on a must-read story whose headline - "Fugitive bouncer who gunned down ex-lover and her boyfriend taunts police with 999 call after shooting officer in in unprovoked attack" - seems to be longer than half the stories on your site.

Still, as you would no doubt say, it's early days and I'm sure we'll see more real change in the next few weeks as the site responds to the reality of the marketplace than we've seen in the last few years. I shall be watching with interest. If you need any more advice, you know where to find me.


  1. I'd agree with that. I'm not sure Murdoch doing the paywall thing first is going to do the concept any favours, but there's no way newspapers can continue to offer all their content online for free. It's not a workable business model.

    Interesting thoughts re: The Guardian. I wouldn't say that I fitted the classic Guardian reader profile you've described there, but it's certainly the only paper whose online service I'd consider paying for. They run an excellent website, which expands upon rather than simply replicating the print version, and takes advantage of the medium. For instance, I found it invaluable during the General Election campaign as its live blog offered a handy means of keeping up to speed with breaking news, with accompanying video and audio where possible, and feels very much like the 'rich storehouse' you describe.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this piece and I love your style. I'm also intrigued by the Guardian and have thought many times about the maximum that I would pay. I also know what you mean about the feeling of having paid for something, like when Napster stopped being for free and you had to download and pay for tracks.

    But, and here is the but, my understanding is that the Guardian believe (maybe erroneously) that they can make more money from a free website with a gazillion users that brings in advertising and other sources of revenue (never sure what those are but someone must take up on all those Guardian offers for books and stuff)

    In other words, it maybe there are other business models that will come to the fore as well as other ways of thinking about how you do web/print from a content management perspective and a creative perspective to make it worthwhile

    I think we will have to see whether Murdoch makes any money (will we ever know?) and then each site will have to decide what works for them.

    But great piece

  3. I'm an academic, but not shouting from the sidelines for more kindling on the bonfire. I'm genuinely fascinated by all this, though, because I think that newspaper owners have just forgotten what newspapers are for.

    Following a live blog for breaking news is typical of what people use news web sites for, but what newspapers are good at is the commentary and analysis. Any idiot can regurgitate press releases or report on press conferences and staged events.

    I almost paid my £1, because I've been on the preview for a while, but I stopped myself because of exactly what you say. It's an attractive-looking design, though with too much Flash, but the content feels pretty thin, notwithstanding their long list of commentators and columnists.

    What I thought the Times were doing well was that whole membership thing - a weekly email with offers and competitions which has a feeling of exclusivity to it. But in the end, I'm not the target market and all the tempting offers are so obviously for toffs that I feel all the more excluded, thanks to the chip on my shoulder.

    People use the internet to get the latest news, and if they are really fascinated or obsessed, they will seek out news in depth on a particular topic from more than once source - which is when they encounter the disappointment of everyone reproducing the same agency story or press release.

    So I think you're right to say that what should be behind the paywall is something more substantial, in-depth, and much more opinionated. The Guardian does try to do this with its CiF area, but has yet to solve the problem of trolling and has yet to convince a lot of its readers that it is not (nor has ever been) a left-wing newspaper.

  4. Reading between the lines The Guardian is in some financial trouble. I've read a couple of times on their website that they are losing approximately £700k per week. The recently published accounts seem to confirm this. I believe, the paper has always had a degree of cross-subsidy from other parts of the Guardian Media Group - notably the Manchester Evening News. But as they sold that particular asset earlier this year things are looking worrying in the short-term.

    While on a personal level I am happy with the current arrangement - because I don't buy the paper anymore and just read it all online. I would also say at this point the quality of the paper has taken a nosedive over the last couple of years. However, despite my reading habits, I am troubled by the idea that journalism should be free for two reasons. First, I think professionals should be able to charge a price for their labour. And second, if newspapers become free at the point of use but funded by advertising what does this mean in terms of journalistic integrity and independence?

    So while I may still despise Rupe for what he has done to British political, cultural, and sporting life over the last few decades. I'm kind of hoping he wins out on this one and that someone at the Guardian sees sense before it's too late for the paper I brought everyday for about 25 years.

  5. Sunday morning and someone tweets that there is an interesting story about Tom Jones's record company complaining about his recent recordings being a waste of money.

    I want to read this but an anti Murdoch bias makes me refuse to hand over my quid - I figure someone else will pick on the story anyway.

    And they do and it's great:

    This strikes me as a major problem for paywalls - if you actually do get your hands on a juicy exclusive then your free rivals will just copy it anyway.

  6. Perhaps Murdoch doesn't much mind what happens to the Times website. (There's little or no extra content, and therefore little or no extra cost for News Internat.)

    But when you're making your choice in WH Smiths every morning, you might recall that the other papers are free online: The Times then becomes the obvious buy.

  7. Anonymous10:48 am

    Given the amount of cash floating around in Murdoch's coffers, I doubt whether the Times' is living on the margins or that paid subscription, successful or otherwise, will really have any impact on its existence. Murdoch likes flagships and will most likely pay through the nose to wave them.

    Excellent point by Sid Smith above, though it assumes that people have enough time to read both hard copy and online news. Such luxouries are for the weekend.

  8. I guess it all comes down to how you actually want your news bringing to you. Time was when a national daily and a local evening rag gave you, pretty much, the whole picture. But for those of you who constantly crave 'this just in' or 'we're hearing on the wires that...' will always gravitate to a tablet 'paper' where, in true Back To The Future style, the front, and indeed every, page is constantly changing. So, dig deep if you want the papers delivered to your door. Dig a little bit deeper if you want it fed direct to your Mac/Pad/PC.

  9. Clay Shirky ("internet guru") doesn't think the paywall will work - interesting Guardian interview

  10. I have paid my quid too. And I do hope it works. And I reckon if it does it'll be by some combination of 'bundling' and the old 'gym membership dynamic' - i.e. we'll all fairly quickly forget that we're paying for The Times along with our Sports and Movies etc. on our Sky (and Virgin) bills.

    And the reason I hope it works is not because free is nonsense (radio has been free for over eighty years and that was in response to a huge technological 'revolution' and no one calls for an end to that nonsense!) but because successful post-Internet media will be an 'ecology' or a 'soup' of different approaches. Free and paid-for will coexist (and closed platforms with built-in billing that works more like a phone bill like the iPad will have something to do with it).

    And, before I shut up, I am fairly reliably informed that The Guardian would be making a substantial profit if it weren't for the ridiculous overhead of running a newspaper - the newsprint, the smelly trucks, those rubber things you put on your thumb to turn pages, the copyboys and green eyeshades etc. etc.

  11. The Times was exceptionally quick to set up a production line to format itself for the iPad.

    The emergence of this type of device, and of surfing via a mobile phone, offers a second chance to the media companies. They messed up with the internet, but here are new formats where, perhaps, users can be programmed to expect a different deal.

    Erm, that's the theory anyway.

  12. I should have added this, from the Grandiad on June 3:

    "The Times' iPad edition, which went on sale along with the tablet's UK debut Friday morning, sold 5,000 copies in three days, News Corp.'s CEO Rupert Murdoch told AllThingsD's D8 conference Tuesday, at which he also spoke about the true value of content (see our full post).

    "At the app price of £9.99, that's £49,950 income in just a few days, before Apple's commission. Not bad for a few days' work, and could be a relatively nice earner…

    "But whether significant numbers of iPad users will renew the £9.99 subscription each month, after that first-week flurry of app excitement, remains to be seen."

    Do bear in mind, tho, that this isn't free money. The reformatting of the daily paper takes time and bodies, and of course all the other papers are there on the web for free.

    The paper does look damn smart on the iPad, tho.

  13. The big loss for The Guardian will be when they lose the lucrative public sector jobs ads which has just about kept them afloat.