Will planned paywalling save the press?
News International has announced that as of next month, content on the websites of The Times and Sunday Times newspapers in the UK will be charged for. This method is called “paywalling” and it’s aimed to be the answer to a declining press.
“Our feeling is that it is time to stop giving away our journalism. That’s because we feel that we are undermining the value of our journalism, undermining the value of The Times and undermining the perception that journalism and news has a value,” said editor James Harding
There is no doubt that print revenue is falling. With the increasing prevalence of internet access, the collapse of advertising revenue in print media and the economic decline, some are going so far as to say it is on its last legs. Newspaper revenue fell 28% in the first three quarters of 2009 and nearly 15 000 newspaper employees were laid off.
In a hurry to transition into the technological age and not lose out to the likes of Google and Yahoo! News, many publications started putting their content online. But advertising does not bring in as much online and, in the words of NBC Universal’s CEO Jeff Zucker, publications are “spending analogue dollars to get digital dimes”. This has to change and “paywalling” – charging for that content – is one way of doing it.
The theory that people will pay to access the content online comes from the idea that they still value the content the same as they always have, but with cheaper and easier distribution now (i.e. online) would rather not pay for paper. These people would, however, be willing to pay a lower price to access the same content digitally. This theory assumes a value for journalism: in-depth, truthful and balanced stories.
But is this the case?
The Wall Street Journal has made a success of it, with about 407 000 electronic subscribers, enough to keep the print publication going. But The Wall Street Journal has a very specific audience and offers highly specialised content. Charging for general news is another story entirely, and one that even News International isn’t sure will work.
One problem is that people in the digital age have grown used to finding that content for free. Another problem is that paywalling means the sites will not be indexed by search engines and will not be exposed to non-subscribers at all. That means an immediate loss of up to 20% of their traffic. It’s a brave move to make, but not necessarily a wise one.
Also something to take into account is that our reading habits for online are incredibly different from those at the breakfast table or on the beach. Studies have shown that we do not even read entire articles, let alone entire publications: we click around, we become distracted.
A recent study by the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that not even the content is the same. The things we talk about and share with each other on social networks are markedly different from those we read in the news. We consume a different kind of journalism now – short-form, tweeted, pasted, blogged. Gone are the days of the long-form stories found in The New York Times. At least online.
This is something The New York Times might want to consider seeing as they’ve recently announced that they will also be paywalling from the start of next year.
What The New York Times is doing, however, that is a bit different from The Times is what the Poynter Institute calls “a metered system”. Already tried out by the Financial Times, this system allows users to read a certain number of articles a day for free before being prompted to pay up. It’s a good system for the casual browser, but will it make them any money considering how little people enjoy reading on the computer screen? Time will tell.
The fuss about the iPad
One point worth making is that tablets, like the iPad, may serve as some kind of salvation. By charging for applications and editions, the publications could make back some of their money. The question has to be asked, though: if you could get your news for free on your iPad browser from another source, even if it was just a blogger, would you still pay for an app just because it gave you “professional journalism”? Or is professional journalism itself a dying concept?
You can read our previous feature on blogging vs journalism here.
Originally posted at Digital Life