Murdoch still hasn't found what he's looking for close
Newspaper owners across the land must have been breathing a sigh of relief when Rupert Murdoch stuck his head over the parapet and declared that he was no longer prepared to give his company's journalistic content away for free. Finally someone was standing up and saying what the vast majority of Fleet Street must surely have felt for a decade; if we want to prevent the newspaper industry going the same way as the music industry, we need to start putting a price on quality journalism.
To fill you in if you don't already know; Murdoch's plan is to erect a pay-wall around the Times Online and Sunday Times websites this summer so users will need to pay a charge of £1 per day or £2 per week to access the content online. He is also threatening to remove News International's content from Search Engines due to his insistence that Google et al are leeching it and becoming absurdly rich off the back of it - a fair accusation despite the rallying cries of the 'free web' evangelists.
Let me pin my colours to the mast; I believe in rewarding the quality, integrity and thought that goes into top-tier journalism. I believe we need to safeguard it as a legitimate career to prevent the next generation of free-thinking reporters becoming bankers, lawyers and web designers. I don't, however, want digital journalism wrapped in a sickly layer of advertising and i do want to dive in and out of content from different providers without paying for the bits i don't use. Demanding, aren't I?
News International's move is brave for a number of reasons, not least of which is that they are taking the gamble that the rest of the mainstream press will follow their lead. What they are demanding is a change in mentality of internet news consumers.
But in my view Murdoch's assumption of how online consumers perceive news is way off the mark. Rightly or wrongly, we simply don't attribute the same value to content discovered towards the top of a Google search or via a bookmark as we do to a tangible product we purchase in a newsagent. As such, if similar content is available for free from any of his mainstream competitors, Murdoch is going to lose all but the most partisan of his readership. So far, some months after the Wall Street Journal became the first of the mainstream to charge for its content, only the Economist has joined him in the UK and unless the figures start to look good pretty quickly, I would expect a fairly dramatic about turn after just a few months.
Whilst I don't think the traditional web user is ready to voluntarily pay for content they have been getting for free for a generation, I do think that the acceleration in uptake of mobile devices could be the catalyst that the newspaper industry is looking for in their hunt for revenue streams outside of advertising. The main reason for this is the emergence of the applications market. Suddenly digital content is available in product form. It is portable, available offline and, crucially from a revenue point of view, free from an expectation of freeness.
Apps such as the Guardian's are also superior to their mobile web cousins due to faster load times and the ability to tailor the content through the setting of personal preferences making it a smoother user experience.
When done well, the result is a premium product which users are willing to pay for. The Guardian iPhone App, priced at £2.39, for example, racked up 100,000 downloads within 10 weeks of launch and although that cost is a one off payment I believe that a licensing model where users pay a couple of pounds per month for the App would be met with a sizeable uptake and provide an ongoing and sustainable financing model.
Furthermore, if he carries out his threat to shut off the Search Engines, Murdoch is stifling a significant and valuable conduit to his content - latest estimates are that a third of traffic to the Times comes through search engine referrals.
As much as it pains me to say it, I agree with the premise of what Murdoch says but his approach is a metaphorical bludgeon. I believe that the way to monetise content is to look at the traditional web as a shop window, supported in part by a conventional advertising model. The main revenues should come outside of this traditional format and away from the expectation of free content and the enormous amounts of open source alternatives. It should come through the creation of paid-for applications for an ever-improving world of handheld devices, providing easily accessible content with real differentiation and quality that can be accessed where and when the user wants it; be that on the daily commute or on the loo.
In the words of Jorn Lyseggen, CEO of Meltwater, "Getting the balance right between the availability of free content and access to paid-for content will be crucial [to the future of journalism]".