• Newspapers and the great online debate

    The Times and Sunday Times in the UK has announced that it will charge for access to its website from June of this year, making users pay £1 for a day’s access or £2 for a week’s. This decision is no real surprise and has been anticipated for some time, due to the many comments made by Rupert Murdoch in recent months.

    The question of how newspapers survive and thrive online is a dream come true to me – not that I know what the answer is. It blends perfectly my two favourite topics of media matters and technology and shows the struggle that occours when that happens.

    As a journalist it’s also of vital importance, as print may become a less reliable way to make a living in the years ahead and so a viable alternative is needed.

    The News Corp decision to charge is completely understandable – news gathering costs money and that can rarely be recouped from web advertising alone. Similarly giving content for free allows aggregators like Google to carry it at no expenses and benefit from the advertising it bundles with it.

    So in Murdoch’s view, it’s not fair that Google makes money from his newspapers when he isn’t.

    £2 (likely to be converted to €3 in an Irish context) for a week of access seems quite fair too, especially when compared to the cost of the printed version.

    There are two huge hurdles that come with charging for online news, however.

    The first is that the difference between 0c and 1c is psychologically huge – much larger than the leap between even €1 and €2. One of the first challenges News Corp will face is finding an effective way to get people on board – credit card details and all – in the first place.

    Once there it will be much easier to take money from them on a rolling basis – after all, who will miss a couple of quid from their bank accounts every month? It’s much the same as Apple’s iTunes; 99c is not going to be missed by anyone with even a below average income but getting them to agree to the notion of paying for something in the first place is the tricky bit.

    The second – and arguably bigger – issue for the company is the options available to its customers online. What may well happen once it goes behind a pay-wall is that readers go to The Guardian or UK Independent (where content is free at the moment) rather than pay up to continue reading The Times.

    This is one of the main reasons why The Irish Times lifted its pay wall in 2008. It found that when people came online for Irish news they would rather go to The Irish Independent’s site – which was free to access – than pay for access to The Irish Times’.

    Even if all other newspapers in the UK were to go pay-only online there would still be the slightly problem of the BBC, which Murdoch has been targeting in his most recent rants. The BBC will always offer its news for free online and lets face it, so will other companies.

    So how do you compete with that? The only answer is to make the product worth paying for.

    News Corp – and others going this route – need to ensure that they have something no-one else can offer and that cannot be replicated for free elsewhere. In other words the standard report of yesterday’s news and the recycled press release just won’t cut it any more.

    What is required is better analysis, better comment, better angles and potentially a return to investigative journalism. This way people can still go elsewhere if they want free news, but it won’t nearly be as good.

    This logic is the simple reason why the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have been able to successfully charge for content for so long. They offer a focus on a niche topic in a way that no-one else can, so people who want that have to pay up.

    In an Irish context that may mean covering all Irish news in a way that’s better than the rest because at the very least the companies that will be trying to do that will be few and far between anyway.

    For example IN&M’s local/regional newspaper group are starting to charge for online content while The Irish Times recently replaced its ‘Today’s paper’ section with a premium ePaper version, though as IrishTimes.com editor Hugh Linehan points out the content itself is still free to those who want it.

    It’s only a matter of time before all newspapers and magazines have to re-think they way they are doing things, if they haven’t already. That does not mean all news will inevitably go behind a pay wall – it just means that the business model is changing and everything has to be considered in the years ahead to make ends meet.

    All that said, many publishers will be happy to let Murdoch & Co. charge forward to see if there is treasure or a trap ahead.

    This article originally appeared on the Business & Finance Tech Blog.