Should Publishers charge for access to content?

I keep updated on the world of online publishing because, well, because I can.  And because I used to be involved in the whole thing until the beginning of the year.  So it hasn’t escaped my knowledge that Rupert Murdoch has decided that he is going to charge people for access to his content.  I’ve written about this before at the turn of the year when I discussed the business models available for publishers.  Option number two was for the paid content where I actually said:

The only way around this is either to have news that nobody else has … or information that isn’t publicly available.

Fortunately to save me from having to repeat loads of things that have already been published, Adam Tinworth has a nice little round up of what the blogs and other papers thought of the idea.

But I think the best piece I have read so far on this has been Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.  And I think that he has hit the point on the head really well (even if the people commenting on his post didn’t really get what he was saying).  Back to this in a moment.

Firstly lets see what Murdoch does:

Will he go for the model of putting everything behind a pay wall and then charging people to see it?  Presumably he’ll come up with a model of how you can pay for this set of content based on a months subscription, a year or a pay per view.  If he does this then he’ll have to ensure that nobody can steal his content and put it on their own website, because you wouldn’t pay for something on his websites that you could get for free elsewhere.  The other downside is that his audience is going to go down massively because he’ll get no traffic from search engines (or very little – he’s effectively cutting off his long tail).

Will he go for the model of putting some content that is unique behind the pay wall and letting the rest be free?  The so-called ‘Freemium’ model means that you can still attract the audiences to your high profile content and then you can try and sell the premium stuff to those that want to get the extra.  It’s a controversial model – you’d actually have to make sure what you were offering in the premium section was worth paying for and you’d have to make sure your free content dovetailed well into it so that you can sell more of the premium stuff.  This would mean you’d need a team of trained analysts working around the clock to find the best links from free to premium to increase conversion.  It’s unlikely the journalists are going to be able to do this (given that half of them just plonk their hard copy content onto a web page with little thought).

So what is the value add of the content?  Well look into this from the top.  What does News Corp own?  Well look at that list of newspapers.  That isn’t what is interesting me though.  What is interesting me is the list of TV companies and channels (t)he(y) owns.  One of the arguments that we always give (I gave it in that quote up there) that people won’t pay for something they can get free elsewhere.  How did BskyB get so many people watching it.  They stopped anyone else using it for free.

Now if you think that in this country we have BSkyB with 9 million users.  Recently Sky has started offering live television for subscribers through their own feeds on  What if Murdoch started supplementing its articles from The Sun or the Times with video from Sky.  Available to Sky subscribers for say £1 more a month.  You have Sky?  You get the Sun for free for a month and when you read about your football results, we’ll give you the highlights as well.

In the US there is Fox News.  Why not link in Fox News with the New York Post?  You have a load of additional journalism that you can throw in for free.  Whilst other Media companies are starting to pick up content as and where they can, this could be more and more important for News Corp, because they produce it all themselves.

This leads me back to my point from Simon Jenkins earlier.  He says in his piece:

I was once asked by a streetwise Californian what business I was in. When I said I wrote for the Guardian, he looked glum. “Great brand,” he said, “pity about the product.”

He also says:

Newspapers should not be investing in fancy printing presses but in the “long-tail” economics of live enterprise, with the printed word as a mere core activity.

Is he on to something here?  Is he suggesting that if Newspapers want to survive they shouldn’t be just looking at their core journalistic view.  As he points out that music makers now only really make money out of live performances, will journalists start to only make money out of selling what they are good at.  Where once you could make money by being good at creating music, now you have to be good at selling it to particular audiences as well and doing it live. 

If Journalists could once make money by being good at writing, then maybe now they have to be good at selling it to a particular audiences as well and doing it live.  You need to be knowledgeable on your subject, you need to know your audience and you need to be able to do it all in real time.  Maybe Simon was really implying that whilst Journalism is dead, really we should be paying people to blog.  How would that work?  Maybe Rupert Murdoch is about to show us all. 

This won’t sit well with traditional journalists though, where writing was the forte and not knowing their subject matter inside out.  The other trouble is that it may be too late, because most of the blogs are out there for free anyway now.

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