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)
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.