Where Murdoch leads, others will follow

“That it is possible to charge for content on the web is obvious from the Wall Street Journal’s experience,” says Rupert Murdoch. “The current days of the internet are over” Well if they are, we’ll all be the poorer for it. I always thought it was ironic that the papers which reported money, the WSJ and the FT, charged for content (although the FT allows you so many free hits a month). Charging for specialist content is one thing, paying out for the general run of the papers is quite another. The Irish News charges as you know, as it otherwise fears a landslide in revenue if it didn’t. The once free Irish Times now charges at a whopping rate for its terrific archive, where once it didn’t, and now exploits the daily content as a come hither. I’m left feeling resentful, no doubt unfairly. Resentment can drive readers away. Doesn’t loyalty to a paper matter any more? Or has sentiment been thrown over as a marketing factor in the struggle to survive? The main threat from blanket charging would surely fall on the broadsheets. Can you imagine people paying out for the Sun when you can get sun, sex and celebs in the giveaways? The risk is people would desert the papers wholesale and rely on the “free” BBC websites for standard news and on blogs for opinion. And where would we be then? For the pro and cons for the survival of journalism in the digital age, dip into this dialogue from Prospect, if you haven’t seen it already.

  • Pete Baker


    Crooked Timber’s Chris Bertram’s riposte to Murdoch.

  • Pete Baker

    I should add that, like the Irish Times, the NY Times have already tried using a subscription-based model.

    But ultimately they went free-to-air, so to speak.

    A large part of that was due to the fact that their once influential op-ed writers were being left out of a now much wider conversation.

    As you say, specialist content for niche markets can always find those willing to pay for the privilege.

    But I don’t see how Murdoch can implement that on a wider [public] front. His backroom guys might be looking into it, but I doubt they’ve got an answer.

  • The Raven

    “Doesn’t loyalty to a paper matter any more? Or has sentiment been thrown over as a marketing factor in the struggle to survive?”

    No, Brian, it doesn’t matter any more. Not when you are dealing with an increasingly information hungry populace, who will happily accept something from a blog as gospel, rather than a researched piece by a respected journalist.

    We’re into the age of we-think as far as the internet is concerned, beyond the much vaunted Web 2.0. User generated content is fast becoming king. This is not to say that the various talents that make up a news paper, or indeed news channel are redundant – but it is obvious that the means and format of the newspaper is more and more redundant.

    I’m in my mid-thirties. I will still buy a Sunday paper. But the next “generation” (whatever that is) beneath me rarely even do that. The newspaper is something the oldies leave around to go in the recycling bin – at least that’s the take on it from an 18 year old.

    A newspaper is a one-way form of communication. The increasingly technically-literate generation want more – they want to interact, they want to contribute, and in its most extreme form, they want to BE the news. A paper doesn’t allow for that. And increasingly, the online community wants “niche”. And again, the printed format of a paper, with its “mass news” production won’t allow for that.

    Caveats before the cryers arrive: I’m not saying this is true for everyone. I am not saying that we are becoming more illiterate. I am not even saying we are increasingly unable to digest complex issues or large treatises on certain subjects.

    Only the subject matter, and the manner in which we want to receive, digest, and interact with the news is changing.

    Must be sad to see, if you have fond memories of Picture Post. I myself have a long history of working with photography; the kicker for me is the death of the photo-story, for so long the mainstay of the Sunday supplement.

    Just to finish off, I was in a marketing meeting with a company the other day, and had brought in a specialist to speak to the gathered throng. It was telling that he specifically said that he had not recommended a newspaper spend in a marketing campaign for any local company for at least seven years.

  • Brian Walker

    Raven, I have more than fond memories of Picture Post. I’ve got a collection!

  • pól

    Raven, I agree with your general thrust. However, there are still those who will buy paper. I’m 23, I’ve been buying the Guardian and/or the Independent on a daily basis since I was in 6th form. Many of my friends are the same. There is a also a large number of young people who like to purchase the Mirror or the Sun for their football and, to some extent, betting coverage.

    In particular, the Guardian have quite decent blogs, letting the average user interact with the news. I think a new distribution model is needed. Broadsheets should try and get into the school markets. If you create a reader at the age of 16-18, you’ve probably got them for life.

  • The Raven

    PL – can I just point out the bit where I wrote “caveats” in my original piece? Other than that, I am heartened to read what you have written – that sounds condescending; it isn’t meant to be.

    The point you make about the schools market is excellent – my own had all the broadsheets laid out on those big desks with the bar down the middle to hold them in place. In fact it still does.

    But you must concede that you and your mates are in the minority on this. The lack of reading “stamina” in the average 18 year old is increasingly well documented. There are many reasons behind it – from the “bite sized chunks” method of teaching to something simple like the texts they gave/give us to read. “Waiting for Godot” (life is shit, kill yourself now) to an 18 year old? Wuthering Heights for 12 lads in an A-level class?? Wha??

    Off topic – reading skills and breadth of reading is something that really has to be looked at; on topic – I think it’s just another nail in the coffin for the newspaper format.

    Brian – I fear our refuge remains the National Geographic…!

  • Subscription will fail.

    Why has nobody explained to those once Masters-of-the-media-universe that, as long as several hundred thousand bods (like me) can sign up for a “free” blog account, they’re buggered.

    It works like this:

    * Bod A has access to Source Z;
    * He/she re-posts or summarizes (the “z” is to keep the spellcheck happy) said source, and posts. Cut-and-paste is a great aid here;
    * It takes not very long for that to appear on the search-engines;
    * Plus it’s there in digital perpetuity.

    So why not pursue the “added-value” route?

    That means, Ruppie Babe, ya gotta work for it. Give us peasants the space; and hope you (and our “free” efforts) can attract those side-bar adverts. Or encourage us, in more sophisticated prompted linkages, to mention products and channels that you can, hopefully, “charge” for our effusions.

    Meanwhile, of course, those crawler engines are working for the greater good of world-wide capitalism, locating the points of reference wherein Ruppie’s GigaCorp is mentioned — and Ruppie’s ad-engines thereby bid for space, a nano-second at a time, in the side-bar.

    It’s a different world. Wake up and sniff the jabber.

  • Pete Baker

    “Waiting for Godot” (life is shit, kill yourself now)

    *shakes head*

    I blame the teachers. ;o)

  • The Raven

    Pete, I am thinking of a piece of research – correlating where Beckett is taught, to Columbine-esque incidents…

  • “The lack of reading “stamina” in the average 18 year old is increasingly well documented.”

    I wonder whether this has not always been the case, although I take the general thrust of the points made and I too could give PL a hug for his/her comments. I started reading the Guardian in my late teens and despite raging about its content almost daily, it was one of the best days work of my life, as that paper has been a joy and has without doubt enriched my life.

  • The idea of schools as a source for new revenue is important, because the future market does far prefer online content. In France, they are subsidising a free subscription on one paper in the A Level year, as part of a wider package.

    The problem with your model, Malcolm, is that we remain dependent on the quality of journalism at source A. Since revenues are visibly falling very quickly at the moment, more dependence on AP is inevitablte, or a decrease in the choice of sources. As advertising revenues contract or become more concentrated, editorial pressures are also likely ro increase. There could also be a change of attitude regarding legal action on intellectual copyright. It seems to me that you can also have free journalism based 100% on advertising in print media, so the two markets should be able to co-exist online. Murdoch, though, does not have a good track record regarding understanding online markets.

    My only subscription is at six euros a month at lemonde.fr. They have an excellent morning, lunch and evening headlines-by-email service, access to a huge amount of material not available otherwise and twenty-five, I think, archive visits a month. That kind of product I think will sell. The Guardian could perhaps give the paper free and charge a small fee for Comment is Free, or vice versa.

    I’d bracket the Sun a little closer to the terminal decline of FHM etc, and Guido, for example, shows the tabloid style can be replicated for free.

  • pl @ 10:02 PM has it absolutely right. Reading of all kinds, and the accompanying purchase of a daily, is a habit; and if it’s not caught by the late-teens, it probably never will be. It would be interesting to hear how Sluggeristas came to their obvious literacy, and how their reading habits, including choice of newspaper, diverged from that of their parents.

    The Economist has (or did have until recently) a scheme to penetrate school libraries and offer “come-on” subscriptions to students at knock-down rates. Time will send you a weekly dose for something a trifle over £20 a year, which also gives access to the whole archive (and a “free” watch). I am plagued by repetitive mailings from the Times [note I have switched to plural] to by-pass my newsagent on an extended subscription. Newspaper sales is, fortunately, one of the more inspiring and imaginative bits of the marketing profession: with the ultimate perishable product it needs to be.

    Another telling point, a bit of psychoanalysis, is how each of us reads a paper. I find I skim headlines, go instantly to “Doonesbury”, then the opinion pieces, before trawling through the detail. Many of the Sunday Times sections go unread. My father always did his Express backwards.

    My cousin Ralph, a Bogart lookalike, ex-miner, ex-steel-worker and full-time professional Yorkshireman, always read the Telegraph. Since this was totally at variance with his political views, I quizzed him: “Tha’s gotta knoo wha’ t’enemy’s thinkin’!” His wife, sotto voce corrected this with “It’s the racing pages, of course.”

    Then there’s the other point, touched on by Mickhall @ 08:11 AM, and a staple topic in every school. It’s worth asking how we do induce the adolescent male to read at all (girls are easier: look at the quantum of chicklit out there). Perhaps the knack is not to look too closely at what they are reading, but make sure there is plenty and variety there to pass the idle moment. A former Head of English (whose skin I have shared these many decades) once suggested supplying Playboy to the school library, in the hope that the bits between the piccies might get some attention. This was not well received by the feminists: in turn, the chemist chipped in:

    “Why not the Braille edition then? Oh, I’m sorry; I’ll feel that again.”

    When I’m in the US, I use a NJ Transit commuter station. In the waiting-room there’s a coffee bar and a concierge service (e.g. leave your dry-cleaning, collect in evening). There’s a newsagent, naturally. Take a late train, and you’ll likely get a free NY Times or a Star-Ledger (minus the front-page banner, returned for credit). Even more laudable is the book-exchange carousel: deposit what you’ve read, take a replacement. It works; and, above all, it makes reading matter available.

  • I take all of the points cogently made by Damian O’Loan @ 09:11 AM.

    I like the French subsidy scheme, up to a point. To be fair, at the moment schools are well-resourced (the Cameron austerity programme will doubtless aim to change that) and should be providing for the needs, including newspapers, of pupils at all stages. However, I feel queasy if schools are regarded by news-providers primarily as a revenue stream.

    Then, anyone who has been on the receiving end of UK tabloid news-reporting knows that it is no more or less authoritative than the Web. We also spend a great deal of time and effort in the classroom distinguishing “fact” and “opinion”: it’s a basic question even on GCSE foundation papers, for example.

    Yes, the range of sources and news-providers is important. I addressed that elsewhere in a different context, but a real one. US West Coast dailies are dying: Hearst killed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on St Patrick’s Day, and the SF Chronicle may not be far behind. That would leave ‘Frisco as the largest US city without an English-language paper: perhaps we’ll have to learn Chinese. Both the P-I and the SF Gate web-presences seem to flourish, however.

    Then, on one hand, we have the phenomenon of “citizen-journalism”. Consider the way the story of the G20 London protests/police response continues to develop. The initial presentation was of police facing a “riot”. Suddenly we had a “reverse-ferret” and the narrative became police brutality.

    On the other hand, we have blatant misrepresentation, often for partisan reasons. I have a personal beef about the way the “Baby P” story has been exploited, and orchestrated by the local opposition MP. Denied the identity of the malefactors, and a convenient lamp-post and noose, the press demonised the social services and local politicians — and (looking at this week’s issue of the once-reputable Ham & High) persist in so doing.

    These are two examples where, as I see it, what was missing was any editorial editorial balance. The sources were there: it was the treatment that was defective.

    Damian’s last point, the curse of “Guido”, deserves consideration. It now seems clear that Paul Staines sat on the story for some time, perhaps weeks. He filtered it through the Murdoch press to cover himself against libel: not quite the “fearless” muck-raker he likes to present himself. Equally, the insinuations McBride and Draper exchanged seem to have shades of verifiability behind them: Cameron put himself on record (Cosmopolitan, no less) as visiting a STD clinic at Oxford; the Nadine Dorries anecdote has been round the block, and even enhanced by the lady herself (RecessMonkey/Alex Hilton had that last August 26). Yet, all is now represented as “lies”, which itself is a misrepresentation.