Thursday, April 08, 2010

Will Murdoch's paywall idea flounder?

The other day an email landed in the inbox with "Important information about Times Online". As of early May media mogul Rupert Murdoch plans to relaunch his online portals with a pay-per-view approach. From that date access to the Times will be by subscription only. But is this doomed to fail before it has already begun? While it could be argued he has nothing to lose given significant loses throughout 2009, are people prepared to pay for online news content?

Some people might. tvnewswatch has been a subscriber to Time magazine for over 10 years which gives 50 issues of the magazine per year along with access to the website. But as costs of daily newspapers soared regular purchases of The Daily Telegraph and the Independent soon fell by the wayside. Even at around $30 per month access to newspaper portals such as pressdisplay are cost prohibitive for most people, despite offering hundreds of newspapers online. Journalists and newsjunkies may pay for some news content, but it is unlikely the vast majority of news consumers will pay.

While charging for access to television programming has become the norm for a great many people, access to news is somewhat different. People often do not mind paying to be entertained, whether it's a cinema ticket or a subscription for Sky's movie and entertainment channels. News however is rarely entertaining. Informative, thought-provoking, but rarely entertaining.

Even before the advent of the Internet most people obtained news via their televisions. While it could be argued that they were in fact paying for this service by licence fees or indirectly through advertising, the BBC and ITN news gave most people their daily news fix for 'free'. Newspapers provided a small minority reading content for their journey to work. Even with online access, and with it podcasts, videos and multimedia content, many still pick up a physical paper. In this regard, the paid item has also given way to free give-aways. London Lite, the Londoner and more recently the Standard, have all given papers to commuters without charge.

Although there are differences in the way broadcasters and media outlets report the news, the news is often the same. Why would one pay to read Bob Dylan's being banned from China on the Times website when one can read about it for free on the Guardian's website? Commentary and editorial may be different. The Independent's Robert Fisk provided in-depth and pointed analysis of the war in Iraq during the conflict there, and some of the paper's content was paid. But again such examples are only offerings to a minority audience.

Murdoch's argument about copyright might be commendable in respect to his stance over protecting the copyright of writers, journalists and photographers. However News International has often itself breached those very copyright laws, syndicating pictures without permission and not informing photographers of their actions. In nearly ten years, like many other publications, fees offered to journalists and photographers have barely increased, while charges to consumers for the end product has more than doubled.

Journalism and photo-journalism may not be dead, there is still passion amongst many writers and photographers. But organisations cannot pay staff as they once did. Gone are the 'glory days' of Fleet Street when there would be scores of photographers on the pay-roll. No longer can papers afford to pay journalists to conduct long running investigations that culminated in the likes of Watergate. Foreign bureaus in several corners of the world are often little more than lone journalists working on a retainer at best or providing material on a freelance basis. Even the big broadcast networks cannot maintain a continued presence in places around the globe. Sky News will often dispatch reporters as and when a major story breaks. Their Beijing correspondent Peter Sharp is more an exception to that rule. CNN and the BBC maintain a stronger global base with journalists in many key locations, but even these monoliths have cut back in recent years. 

When all said and done there comes a point of saturation. There are after all, only so many hours in the day. Even newsjunkies need to take time out. After 5 hours a day writing for a news agency, posting a blog or two and skimming through a few pages of the latest edition of Time while listening to the BBC world service, there are few hours left in the day to relax. How much content can a person absorb whether via the web, through the medium of television, radio or by the reading of a newspaper? Murdoch may just price himself out of an over saturated market.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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