The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Will The Times’ Gamble Pay Off?

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 26, 2010 @ 12:07

And the seasons, they go round and round...

In what may go down as akin to Bill Gates saying we’ll never need more than 640K of memory, I am going to make a Bold Prediction.

The Times’ plans to start charging for access to their website will fail. Mostly.

At least, they will fail as long as the rest of the main media outlets, but largely the BBC, continue along their current path.

On the surface, the prices have been set to a reasonably low level that will make it attractive to certain groups. That is a good start. After all, a new product in its infancy needs to be nurtured.

Those who already buy the paper and are au fait with the net may choose to make the switch. However, existing fans who already buy the print edition are unlikely to be moved. And why would they? There’s something to be said for having the physical copy in your hand.

So who is it targeted at? Perhaps there are people out there who source all their news from The Times’ site. Maybe they only trust The Times’ journalism, or something. Maybe they will be willing to hand over some cash to keep reading the delights of such an old, reputable newspaper. A couple of pound a week ain’t bad, after all, and maybe you can even be snobby about it and proclaim how you and only you get access to The Times Online any more.

Somehow, it seems unlikely.

Maybe most people out there are news junkies, and have dozens of news websites bookmarked. People like me consume news voraciously, and we don’t really mind about the source. Indeed, a little variety goes a long way to broadening the mind. Perhaps people like me will be disappointed to have lost an extra place to read, but I suspect it’ll be For My Own Good. And there are plenty of other sites out there. Somehow, I suspect we’ll do without.

Otherwise, the rest of their potential market is the casual user. And a casual user is unlikely to want to stump up the readies to do something they’ve always done, assumed it should always be free, and so will switch to whatever free alternatives are available.

Like BBC News.

But in all honesty, are there really people out there who only look at The Times Online? Chances are they’ll be reading BBC News or some other news website anyway.

To me, there just isn’t a market. Unless The Times intend to develop an extraordinarily compelling product – superb journalism, insightful analysis, news you won’t get elsewhere – behind the paywall then how can it possibly succeed? And, let’s face it, to develop a product like that, you’re probably gonna need more than £2 per subscriber per week. Good journalism doesn’t come cheap.

I actually think this whole episode is about trying to scare the regulators. Murdoch wants to give it a go, because he knows that this is a win-win situation. Succeed, and he will be the trend-setter; others will start charging too, and prices will rise, allowing profits to form. Once again he will be seen as one of the world’s most influential people. Fail, and he will be able to blame, guess who, the BBC for their dominance, and their free offerings destroying the private sector and its “innovation”.

Better still, who is most likely to be in government at the time?

Why, the Conservatives, of course! And they hardly need any more reasons to attack Auntie Beeb.

Maybe we shouldn’t have grown up expecting news to be provided for free. Perhaps the internet has distorted all of our values. We see that in our massive consumption of “free” music, videos, games and other websites (free Premier League football online, anyone?). Perhaps we do need to re-evaluate all this.

For now, though, I can’t see it happening.

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3 Responses to “Will The Times’ Gamble Pay Off?”

  1. “Maybe we shouldn’t have grown up expecting news to be provided for free.”

    I think that’s a big part of the problem. Why are we happy to pay 5-10p for a text message but not a news article? That said, no one has yet really tried charging micropayments of that size for news, though the technology does exist. Apparently News International are considering micropayments, at least for the Wall Street Journal: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSLA52492520090510

    One possibility is separating “commodified” news (brief articles recounting facts, with quotes taken from press releases) from “in depth” news (interviews, investigative journalism etc) and charging only for the latter.

    Another unanswered question: would people be more willing to pay for access if there were no adverts behind the paywall? Given the popularity of ad-blockers they just might.

  2. The difficulty in charging for news is that news is news. A certain incident can be reported in different ways, but it is still an incident. If it really is newsworthy, then more than one organisation is bound to report it. That lack of exclusivity means it’s hardly worth paying for.

    Meanwhile, the difficulty in charging for opinion is that, in the Internet age, opinion is omnipresent, and the quality on the net, while variable, if you know where to go can far surpass whatever the writers in the dead tree press can create.

    So what’s left?

    You’re about right when you suggest people might pay for more in-depth pieces that can genuinely be seen as exclusive to that media outlet. But a problem remains. It only takes one person to buy it, copy and paste it onto Wikileaks, or their blog, and it’s out there for free again.

    Even if somehow this didn’t happen, could micropayments of 10p sufficiently justify the cost of a journalist to do potentially months of digging, or at the very least, a day of reading a source (say, the Budget Red Book), analysing and writing? It might work, it might not. I suspect the latter.

    Paying to get rid of adverts is a desperate final bid to make some money from it. It could work too, but I just don’t see the return being sufficient.

    I shall continue observing this situation with great interest. My hunch is that paying for news will never catch on, but we’ll see…

  3. Rick H said

    The BBC is not ‘free’. Most of us pay for it through the licence fee. I am happy to let others on this planet read it for free. It may be left wing biased and incomplete, but it’s usually well-written, honest and gives a global view. I trust Rupert Murdoch about as far as I can throw him, and anyone suggesting he doesn’t influence his editors is, well, one of his editors. As to the unfair competition argument, may I refer to Sky’s effective monopoly on ‘big’ sport. Keen, insightful journalism can survive on donations, e.g. michael yon (to whom I do donate).

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