Paying for online news: the debate continues

Prestigious English publication The Economist is the latest media outlet to announce it will charge for online content. The weekly magazine (which retails for £4) has decided on a paywall to be implemented in the next six months. It follows a review after Rupert Murdoch announced similar plans for News Corp content last month. The Economist had previously charged for online content but gradually opened it up for free in last three years. Yvonne Ossman, its UK publisher, claimed that “people will pay for analysis and debate”. (photo by sekimura)

Ossman may be right for a quality title such as The Economist. Its brand of journalism is a sad loss to free content. What is more problematic is how much people will be prepared to pay for all the “newsy” things they used to get for free. The paywall market is becoming crowded and may end up competing for scarce discretionary dollars. Brisbane academic Terry Flew doubted last month whether consumers will accept paying for what they currently get for free simply because they know it costs the publishers money to produce.Besides profitability, the other main argument is what sort of content might go behind paywalls. The impressive newcomer to Crikey’s Pure Poison collective, Dave Gaukroger, outlined a case this week for how Murdoch might make it work. He says sport is one of the main attractions in getting people to subscribe to Pay TV and could work for online also. Gaukroger also suggested News may leverage its stable of political commentators particularly the demagoguery practiced by Akerman, Bolt and Blair. He said “people will pay to access content that reinforces their world view, so long as it has a level of authority that they are comfortable with.”

Writing in New Matilda yesterday, Jason Wilson picked up on some of Pure Poison’s points and added a few of his own. Wilson agreed with Gaukroger News could make its venture work but didn’t think it would gain from hiding celebrity commentators behind a paywall. But he did agree that paying for sport might succeed if it can be packaged with on-demand and interactive services or bundled with Pay TV subscription. Wilson says “the tide is running in the direction of multi-channelling, niche audiences and content that’s made for (and increasingly by) reasonably discrete fan communities.”

At Larvatus Prodeo, Mark Bahnisch isn’t sure niche content will pay its way. He says the unanswered questions are how much of News’s content is “actually stuff people want at all, and then how much do they want it.” He says people read differently online compared to print and stuff that might sell magazines would not necessarily have a price online.

I don’t know exactly what content News will put behind a paywall but I assume whatever goes there will likely be a money earner even if audience numbers are well down. What interests me more than News’s profits is who will benefit from the gaps they leave behind? Openings will appear in the fields of whatever content is taken out of the free public sphere. Whether it is news, sport, expert opinion, commentary, specialist reporting or some combination of those, their absence will provide opportunities for others. Initially what remains of free coverage in these areas may be scratchy (depending on ABC coverage). Those who can afford it will pay News and the other providers. But there will remain a large audience out there who either cannot or will not pay for content. These people will cast the net wider for other ways of finding out what they need to know.

This is a great opportunity for bloggers and social media exponents – especially ones who can take advantage of higher rankings in Google searches and flourish without the drip feed of linked news. As Flew noted there are new ways of gathering a reputation “through ranking systems, word of mouth, shared links via Facebook, Twitter feeds etc.” While the big players are locked away with their monetised audience, the wider field is open to new voices who can make consistent, compelling and attractive arguments. A recent Future of Media Summit in Sydney rebadged itself as “The Future of Influence” because “media is becoming far more about peer influence than information and reporting”. Influence is based on conversations and aggregated opinion and paywall content fails on both counts.

This is why News Corp’s plans are truly revolutionary, albeit unintentional. Murdoch’s paywall will set off a chain reaction that gives smaller players a unique opportunity to become trusted brands.

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