The news, for a price

From yesterday the English newspapers The Times and The Sunday Times have restricted full access to their news websites to paying subscribers – what is now known as putting up a ‘paywall’. In doing so they have departed from the industry’s currently normal practice of offering online news content free of charge. They are not the first to do this – I remember that the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post required payment for access to some news content from the late 1990s; but the Times is no doubt the most prominent paper to require payment, and this move represents a deliberate calculation by Rupert Murdoch that readers will accept the change and that newspaper proprietors will be able, as a result, to avoid major financial losses as readers migrate from hard copy to online versions. Some others are following suit, such as the New York Times (though in their case only frequent readers will be charged).

I can’t really claim to be a judge of all this, but I think he’s got it wrong. People who get newspapers in hard copy tend to have significant brand loyalty – i.e. they buy the Times (if that’s what they get) because they like what it offers and because they are confident about the news coverage. I don’t think the same applies to online users – they move about between media sites and get what they want often on the back of online searches. I very much doubt whether many of them would subscribe, because no matter how many follow Murdoch’s lead there will always be plenty of free content elsewhere. Therefore, I am not inclined to believe that the business model for online news coverage is subscription – I think it’s advertising, alongside payments for special services such as archive searches.

Of course, many newspapers have found the new online world difficult, and a few have gone out of business or moved to online versions only as the number of subscribers for printed copies diminished. Other publishers who have from the start focused solely on the internet have begun to make an impact (such as the Huffington Post). It will be interesting to observe how newspaper publishing changes in the digital age. But my own hunch is that it won’t follow the trend that Murdoch is suggesting would be best. I may of course be wrong.

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3 Comments on “The news, for a price”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It will depend on how niche he sees his offering. It is relatively niche at the moment, the broadsheet is anyway. But he could go to the market that fly in private jets, more or less back to its origins. For I suspect profits are very thin on the ground and if he could brand the Times as the information source of choice for those that Hermes target with their advertising. The FT and the WSJ market.

  2. Al Says:

    It would probably be true to say that all newspapers would charge for online content if they could.

    NYT tried this years ago, but found out that there were loosing advertising revenue from the loss of traffic from google news. So they are now on attempt II at charging. I would pay to read Frank Rich, or maybe David Brooks, their best op-ed guys, but not much else.

    Everyone will be watching Murdoch to see if he is successful. He probably wont, and the papers reputation will contract to the smaller online circulation of customers, with the eventual reputation questions. It has a great motoring site, and the odd scoop, but asides from that.

    The future of charging will probaby be achives and quality multi episode articles

  3. cormac Says:

    The Irish Times switched to this a while ago, quite annoying..I don’t see the point in subscribing for the odd day you don’t buy the paper

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