Are newspapers ready to charge for online content?

Rupert Murdoch’s decision to experiment with charging for content has ruffled a few feathers. Fair play to Murdoch for being brave enough to put his head above the parapet. If anyone can take the risk, it’s Murdoch — and the rest of the media will have him to thank if the gamble pays off and it reveals the business model that other outlets can follow. Malcolm Coles certainly makes a fairly good case to suggest that Murdoch can get away with it.

Without doubt, monetising content online has been a very tough nut to crack, so much so that many appear almost to have given up. Indeed, the controversy surrounding Murdoch’s decision shows just how much some people now believe that it is impossible to charge for content.

No doubt the advent of the web has changed the game. It is much more difficult to charge for something that doesn’t physically exist, and something which can very easily be distributed for almost zero cost. This more or less means that, if you want to, you can probably get it for free.

I know of one major national newspaper that found that having a paywall was detrimental to their business because they made more money by removing the paywall and instead displaying Google ads to the extra readers. Anyone who has used Google ads will know that we are talking about pretty low amounts here. It is a real demonstration that a simple subscription model will not work for everyone.

But we know that there are plenty of people who are willing to pay for content. As Malcolm Coles points out, there are countless examples of people paying for music, audiobooks and whatever else, when they could have got it for free. That is because, contrary to what many people assume, most humans have a conscience.

For instance, the pay-what-you-like or “honesty box” model actually seems to work. There is the example popularised by Freakonomics about the bagel man. Radiohead seemed to make it work when they released In Rainbows.

Just last week I heard an interview with a taxi driver from Vermont, USA who invites all of his customers to pay what they like. “Nobody has shortchanged me yet,” he says. Even in cases where cash payment was not forthcoming, payment in the form of CDs was.

The problem is, you won’t be able to charge anyone anything if you only serve up a pile of samey crap. Your product needs to be distinctive. The bagel man wouldn’t have done so well if he was trying to sell pens. Radiohead made it work because they are the best band in the world with a loyal fanbase.

But how many media outlets can offer something so attractive? The problem as I see it is not that you cannot monetise any content. The problem is that the content newspapers are producing just now is not the sort of content they can get away with charging for.

Jeff has suggested that there needs to be a sense of duty to buy newspapers, just like there is a sense of duty to vote. But people should only really pay for something that they value, otherwise inefficiencies will result.

If people still value newspapers, they should be willing to pay — and many still are. Most people would feel guilty otherwise, as the honesty box examples suggest. But the problem is that many people just don’t like newspapers any more, as is evident in the comments on Jeff’s post.

It is not as if there is anything wrong with the physical product, despite the jibe about newspapers being “dead trees”. I can imagine a parallel universe where the newspaper was invented after the internet, where the physical paper would be seen as a luxury item. You don’t have to be connected to the internet. You can fold it up and carry it about with you. You can scribble on it if you want to. You can frame it if you love it enough.

But the problem is with the content. With the advent of new technologies, newspapers have become much less useful to consumers. Once, newspapers were almost the only way to find out about the news. Today they are the slowest of many ways to find out the news.

How many times does a major story break late in the day? That story will be all over the breakfast radio and all over the 24 hour news channels. There will be countless reports about it on the internet, and to add insult to injury the bloggers will have had their say too. But if you want to read it in the newspaper, you will have to wait until tomorrow.

Maybe a major story doesn’t break so late very often. But even in these cases, the chances are that you have had ample chance to hear analysis about the front page stories on the radio or the television the night before. In essence, newspapers now do little more than peddle what is literally yesterday’s news.

Like the music industry, the newspaper industry’s mistake was to fail to adapt. They arrogantly assumed that they could carry on with the same template and tinker round the edges, fumbling around for a business model that would work.

Of course, most newspapers have websites these days. But if anything, that has exacerbated the problem. It has led to phenomena like churnalism, with journalists producing more and more content with fewer and fewer resources. As such, much of newspaper websites’ content is watered-down crap. Worse still, much of it is Digg-bait which has been SEOed to death.

That is the crux of the matter. The media is sullied, and journalism as a profession is held in contempt by much of the general public. No wonder people won’t pay for content — it’s not any good, and there is nothing to distinguish it from free alternatives. Why pay to read Telegraph Digg-bait when you can read BBC churnalism for free?

So is there a solution? Keep an eye out for my next article where I will put forward a few suggestions.


  1. Interesting article. Personally I wouldn’t object to paying for online news content on a selective basis; a lot of what is in the print version of the newspapers I read is of no interest to me and generally goes straight in the bin; a good example is with my usual newspaper, the Telepgraph, whose daily sports supplement almost always goes straight in the trash, same with their gardening supllements at the weekend.

    On the other hand one of the most valuable characteristics of a print ediition of a newpaper or magazine is that it can be archived and is unlikely to be be manipulated in the future in the way that online archives easily can be. It’s a little like the difference between digital and film photography where some of the disadvantages of the newer and generally much better medium have beguin to become apparent. The type of news manipulation that ‘Big Brother’ attempted in 1984’s MinTruth would become so much easier if news was totally online-based without a permanent paper record of some kind to back it up. Over my last several years of regular news-internet surfing i recall a number of cases where only diligent research has revealed that manipulation of online news stories has taken place after the event. Having a permanent print record somewhere might act as some kind of ‘conscience’ – a flimsy comfort admittedly.

  2. Bill, thanks for your comment. I think your point about archiving is vital. Sometimes I worry about the way digitally stored information is handled with very little care about its long term storage. Look at how websites are pulled down and replaced with abandon. I wonder if we are acting a bit like the early days of television, where important events are wiped, and lost forever.