The PaidContent blog has a good piece today on why the idea of charging for content might be a flight of fancy and impossible to implement after years of free access.
The post comes in a week that two media figures have been talking paid content and raising much debate in the industry. First there was CEO of Guardian Media Group Carolyn McCall identifying B2B and MediaGuardian.co.uk as possible future areas for charging.
Then came Rupert Murdoch, the News Corporation chief executive and chairman, who said he expects News Corp-owned newspaper websites to start charging users for access within a year. Murdoch is, of course already in a rather lovely position in that he owns the biggest subscription newspaper site in the world, the Wall Street Journal.
“We are now in the midst of an epochal debate over the value of content and it is clear to many newspapers that the current model is malfunctioning. We have been at the forefront of that debate and you can confidently presume that we are leading the way in finding a model that maximizes revenues in return for our shareholders… The current days of the Internet will soon be over,” Murdoch said.
Do you remember when Murdoch first took over the WSJ and talked about dumping the subscription charges? How far and how quickly we have come.
Paidcontent has a number of really salient points summing up the risks and challenges:
—You can’t charge for abundance: basically news is done for, there is too much and it is not a premium, but you can charge for market intelligence and niche information the WSJ, FT.com and many small B2B sites do rather nicely.
What then does this means for newspaper sites like the Mail Online, Times Online and Telegraph.co.uk is anyone’s guess as they cannot charge for the bulk of what they do. Unless Murdoch knows something we don’t?
Paidcontent mentions databases – Americans talk a lot about this and the power of database journalism. Think things like league tables and other information people cannot get elsewhere are possible candidates.
—The genie can’t go back in its bottle: It says that because of 15 years of free content it will be tough to turn back the clock unless it is an industry-wide effort, but that means working together and that is not something the newspaper and magazine publishing industry does well.
—BBC News is the gorilla in the room: When McCall made her comments about charging for content she was answering a question about the BBC. Paidcontent points out rightly that the BBC, not to mention bloggers, is not going away and that it is ludicrous to suggest that the corporation’s remit should not extend to online. Whatever publishers do they will have to consider that the BBC is there with a well-funded site.
I don’t personally think that is an issue, as the BBC’s content is general in its nature and if the same content were produced by a commercial organisation I do not think you could charge for it.
—Advertisers would hate it: This is a question that has not been readily discussed in much detail by anyone that I have heard speaking on the subject. How will advertisers react to the erection of paywall barriers? Not with open arms, as they will see it as users being locked out. Paidcontent argues publishers need to be sure that the extra revenue that comes from charging makes up for any lost advertising.
—E-readers are a white elephant: Paidcontent has no time for the idea that the e-reader, which many publishers are looking at developing for, represents a new way they could charge for their content. The extra gadget in the bag that an e-reader represents has always been my main problem with Amazon’s Kindle and e-readers. Like Paidcontent I don’t think people want to carry around another gadget adding to their mobile, iPod and netbook.
—Even paid-for content is infinitely copyable: true to a point. Clearly bloggers take from the WSJ as quickly as anywhere else, which underlines the idea that if you are going to charge make sure that it is content that is difficult to replicate.
This is why database journalism (tables, charts et cetera) is good. Anything that basically comprises a bunch of words and nothing else can be ripped off in no time.