Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Welcome to the paid-for web: a contrary view

I disagree with my colleague John Royle about his post Welcome to the paid-for web. Or rather, I have a slightly different take on the significance and certainty of the events he describes.

I believe that tacit in his description of Rupert Murdoch's News International's decision to start charging for access to The Times and The Sunday Times websites is the assumption that the said news organisation and newspapers are actually important in a web news context.

There is no denying that News International is big and powerful as a print news organisation. And there is no denying that the London Times was once thought of as The Thunderer - THE Upmarket British newspaper; how Britain saw itself and the rest of the world, and essential reading for 'top' people everywhere and perceived as a source of sound information and steady, sensible opinion. However, that reputation has been steadily eroded in the decades since Murdoch bought the paper. Eroded to such an extent that for a number of years now it has been only half-jokingly referred to as "The Broadsheet Currant Bun" - a mildly scurrilous Cockney Rhyming Slang comparison to its stablemate at News International, the infamous and unapologetically downmarket redtop tabloid, The Sun.

Of course there is a lot of oohing and aahing at the moment about The Times and The Sunday Times charging for content because, well, it is a change. But I don't believe it is a very significant change; nor do I believe those newspapers' online presence is either important in a global web context, or would be greatly missed if it was to disappear completely. Generally speaking, I don't think there is any particular loyalty amongst online news consumers: one source disappears, another starts to charge - "oh well, never mind, forget them, let's move on. There is plenty more out there."

I believe online news is so big, so diverse, so instantaneous, and online news grazing so endemic and habit-forming that the majority of online consumers will soon forget about Murdoch's newspapers - if indeed they ever knew they existed. Yes, he may well get his 10% of current visitors to sign up (though my guess is it will be slightly less) and that small percentage almost entirely consist of libraries and universities along with journalists and commentators from other news organisations who need to have their fingers on every pulse - however weak. The few readers of The Times who still care deeply about their favourite newspaper are I believe almost exclusively confined to those who buy the print at the railway station kiosk or have it drop through the letterbox every morning. If you have paid for hardcopy you are not very likely to worry too much about any online version, one way or the other.

Based on the above, I don't believe everybody is going to cling to Murdoch's shirt tails and move to pay-for content. Firstly, I think very few will see 'Murdoch's 10%' (if he ever gets even that) as a good result. Nor will the advertisers.



Secondly, there is already a well-established model for charging for online news content: back issue archives. The Times itself, from 1795-1985 inclusive has been totally digitalised and available online in its entirety for nearly ten years now. At a price. And fair enough I say (although currently they only cater for institutional subscriptions, which is bad luck on private individuals without access through a subscribing organisation). Similarly, but more universally available, is the British Library's Colindale Online Newspaper Collection which currently provides total searchable access to 49 local and national titles from 1800-1900.



Surely this already established method is the way for news organisations to deal with their online presence? The everyday, constantly updated, headline and limited article output is to stay free (with any advertising that can be sold attached of course), and the back catalogue of full, uncut issues is available online in an archive at a price. I believe this is the way most newspapers will go. The Scotsman already does this. The Times was doing it too until last week, but they seem not to have realised.



If however, John is right, and print newspapers as a herd all turn to pay-for online content, then they will marginalise themselves in web terms. The massive online news consumer group will simply drift away to specialist online news services or organisations which remain free to view. There will be enough to satisfy every taste everywhere, I am certain.

And as for a general stampede away from free content of value on the web to charging, I suspect the former has been something of a rose-tinted illusion for a considerable time. As I have said, The Times Digital Archive has been online for the best part of ten years, and has only ever been available by subscription. Almost every serious specialist magazine which has an online edition charges for access, and always has done, in my experience.

However, daily news - real news, collected, processed and broadcast on the web on a constantly updating basis, is a different beast altogether. It's diversity, quality and volume may fluctuate, but I believe it will always be free.

So what do I think will befall The Times and The Sunday Times online output and any other national newspapers who do choose to go the same way? Surely they are asking to be treated like specialist magazines, when they are actually quite the opposite. What can they do? Perhaps they should be broken up into specialist departments and subscriptions sold for these new seperate sites on that basis, so that The Times newspaper as a total concept, an entity, no longer exists online.

Will John or I be buying the drinks in 2011? No doubt it will be me whatever happens! ;-)


Go to the page at www.zinepal.com for the zine of this response and for John Royle's original post. Get the PDF file or perform various sharing actions.

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