To pay or not to pay

The big media issue this week has undoubtedly been paywalls (again), following the announcement by Johnston Press that it is piloting a paywall scheme in six of its local papers. This is the first news organisation, though I suspect not the last, to follow in the footsteps of Rupert Murdoch, who will introduce paywalls on The Times site in spring 2010.

Rupert Murdoch, courtesy of World Economic Forum on Flickr

They’re also talking about it stateside. As I write, the big cheeses of American journalism are gathered for a two-day workshop called From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age? at the Federal Trade Commission (see the live webcast, search #ftcnews on Twitter for the latest updates, or read Rupert Murdoch’s comments) for a flavour of the debate.

So it was quite fitting for us to have a talk from Rob Andrews of PaidContent.org last week, where we discussed whether the whole idea of paying for news was viable. It doesn’t look promising. According to research commissioned by PaidContent.org, only 5% of people would be willing to shell out if their favourite sites started charging, with 74% saying they would rather switch to free alternatives.

We all know many of these surveys have been done and the numbers vary, but the overwhelming message is that most people have got used to accessing news for free and they want it to stay that way.

The Financial Times might attract 128,000 paid subscribers, but that is only a fraction of its 1.6 million registered users. And charging for specialist content is a very different concept from charging for mainstream news which is also available elsewhere.

This is so twentieth century…

A lot of the discussion about paywalls reminds me of the way people used to think about websites: the idea was to get readers to come to a site and find everything they could possibly need there, so they would have no reason to look elsewhere. That’s the kind of activity a paywall relies on.

I have no doubt there are some readers out there who do act like this. But what if you like to get your business news from The Telegraph, but you prefer the Guardian’s take on environmental issues? What if you like reading in-depth analysis in The Independent, but you still enjoy a sneaky fix of celebrity gossip from the Daily Mail? If all these sites have erected paywalls (and presumably some, if not all, will follow Murdoch’s lead in time), how do you continue to find the content you like, without having to pay for access to every site?

For me, micropayments would seem to be a better option, as they could take different reading habits into account. I know there are some (including Times editor James Harding) who say this could lead to an endless stream of stories about Britney Spears and the like. But I suspect this wouldn’t actually happen in practice because there’s no way stories like that could survive behind a pay wall; there are simply too many other sources. And if nothing else, micropayments might mean we get to use magic virtual coins à la Charlie Brooker – surely that’s reason enough?

Or more practically, we could have a kind of Oyster card for news. You could pay as you go for each article you read, or buy the news equivalent of a travelcard, an all-you-can-read buffet of news.

There is no single right answer. Each idea has its merits and until someone tries them out, there’s no real way to know which, if any, will actually work. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this but I actually respect Rupert Murdoch for giving it a go. After all, we need to try something; we can’t just go on as we are hoping the current models will somehow start working.

But what about digital?

I have some sympathy for the “news wants to be free” approach espoused by Jeff Jarvis and others (it has more nuances than that but for the sake of simplicity, that’s the gist). But I also know that the advertiser-funded model has completely broken down and probably won’t ever recover fully, even once the economic situation improves. Now that newspapers are no longer the primary form of reaching a mass audience, and sites like Gumtree and craigslist have cornered the market in classifieds, there’s no going back.

And despite all the talk about trying to generate income by offering services other than just news, such as Times+ (Simon Jenkins puts the argument nicely here), I think we are kidding ourselves if we imagine it would ever bring in enough to make up for plummeting print revenues. I’m also not sure people identify themselves quite as strongly with a particular news brand as they once did, so the appeal could be relatively limited.

I don’t have the answer, but I know we can’t carry on as we are. We need to re-assert pride in our content. News has a value; it isn’t free to produce and shouldn’t be free to consume. Now let’s just hope the readers agree.

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