There has been much gnashing of teeth over the news that the Times Newspaper is to start charging for access to its website in a couple of months time. The news (hur!) is not that unexpected as the parent company has been on an almost one-man bandwagon to abolish the idea of a free website for ages.
People say, with some justification that if the Times starts charging, then they will simply go elsewhere, although if you ask what they would do if everyone started charging for access, most people seem to have some sort of mental block enabled and the idea that every website would charge for content seems impossible to comprehend.
In a way, that is a justifiable principle, as there is a long tradition of local papers being dropped through letterboxes at no cost at the point of delivery – as well as the papers you pay for in the shops.
Note though – free papers are only free “at the point of delivery”. They are not actually free to you the reader. That advert promoting the local hairdresser has to be paid for somehow, and you can bet a few pennies of your haircut were diverted into the marketing budget.
So, we all pay for news through higher costs in the shops when we pick up a product that was advertised on the telly/radio/newspapers/magazines etc.
In that regard, the argument that news is free is a false one – it never has been free.
However, in an industry where advertising only covers part of the cost of producing the news, then the consumer is asked to pay a further charge to cover the costs – such as the price we pay in the newsagents.
The big argument has been what to do with the “free” websites, and News International has fired the largest, if not the first, round in the drive to apply an access charge for the websites.
Am I willing to pay for access to online news? Yes.
Am I willing to pay a specific fee for access to The Times? No.
What’s the difference?
It boils down quite simply to exclusivity of the news. When was the last time that The Times actually published a genuinely exclusive major piece of news? In fact, part of the shock at The Telegraph’s leading the MPs expenses scandal was not just what they published, but that a newspaper actually had genuine, real news that was (for a few hours) exclusive to their newspaper.
If a politician or business says or does something, then every major newspaper will cover that story. Yes, each will have a different angle to report to cater to their readers biases, but if you want the core facts of an issue, there is no need to stick to one specific newspaper.
What The Times has that is exclusive though are the columnists, the opinions pages, the magazine. Will I pay to read them? Unlikely. This is probably where The Times is going to fall flat on its face – it is trying to charge for news, when in fact it is charging for fluff.
The key problem for the newspapers – as they see it – is that unlike sitting down with a paper or magazine and starting at page 1 and working through to page 100, an online reader will come in via RSS/email/Google, read the specific story then go away.
That is how I work – I don’t methodically visit a news website and work my way through each story in turn. I don’t have time for that. I gather the news I want to read, largely via RSS feeds, then I read the stories that capture my attention – regardless of the supplier.
In such a situation, am I going to pay Â£2 a week to The Times in order to read 2-4 stories per week? Not a hope!
I would however tolerate paying Â£2 a week to have the ability to read, for example 100 stories per week from a range of newspapers. The news needs to be quality writing though – and there is surprisingly little of that out there. Most of it is just journalists writing up their take on a public event, such as a press conference, or following someone else’s news agenda, or at its very worst – simply reprinting press releases (churnalism) as if they wrote it from scratch.
As I get a lot of press releases for my day job – especially science releases – I can tell that probably 90% of the medical and science that appear in the newspapers is just a press release being reprinted. Incidentally, a good percentage of medical press releases are just funding applications in disguise!
Newspapers cannot expect me to pay to read a press release.
So, yes, I will pay for genuine, exclusive content, and already do so. I have a range of subscriptions to websites that offer genuinely exclusive, or at least, very high quality commentary on the daily news – mainly business oriented for work purposes.
Again – the news has to be high quality. People often cite the BBC as a good source of news, and indeed it is good at the headline stuff. However, it is actually quite rare for the BBC News website to publish good in-depth analysis of an issue.
I wouldn’t pay for a newspaper that printed BBC grade news – it just isn’t good enough.
Also, the news industry has to realise that just because I am in the UK, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I only read UK based news publications.
Accepting that my work is slightly different in that it requires me to read a vast range of news from all over the place, even the most basic of internet user will tend to be drawn to newspapers from all over the place as well, thanks to someone sharing a link via email or facebook (or whatever). How does a UK newspaper deal with a USA based reader wanting to read just one specific story that is incredibly popular that day?
In conclusion – yes, I accept that the economics of online news is quite difficult. I run a small business news publication myself and the costs/revenues are appalling. I also tried a paywall for a while, and it just didn’t work, thanks to the quantity of free content out there – mostly from tech blogs who just rip-off other people’s work.
Incidentally, there are very few tech blogs that produce genuinely original content, so if most quality news sites go behind paywalls, expect a massive extinction phase as thousands of low quality blogs close down.
However, the idea that I will pay for generic fluff news that is the staple of the mainstream press is as flawed an idea as thinking you can run an online news website completely free of charge.
Do I have a solution?
Nope, not really. I suspect that an alliance of newspapers coming together and sharing a weekly subscription will be the best route to go down, but newspaper owners tend to have rather large egos, and the chances of them coming together in a common cause is quite slim.
Anyhow, I am off out for a walk then a coffee and read The Economist – one of the few publications that still publishes really good, high-quality news stories.