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Journalism: can pay, won’t pay?

Here’s a thing. If the sites you regularly visited started charging, would you stick with them?

I’ve been mulling over some stuff Rupert Murdoch has been saying. Essentially he’s arguing that the free, ad-supported content model for online news and magazines isn’t sustainable, which I think is right – The Guardian website is brilliant, but the Guardian business is pissing money – and that the future is going to come with a price tag.

Will it work?

I’m trying to imagine how you’d charge for online content. Straight news, presumably, would remain free – it’s not particularly unique – and everything else would be behind some kind of pay wall. Would it work? Would you flinch if, when you went to read a Charlie Brooker column, you had to pay 1p, or if Media Guardian was completely off-limits to non-subscribers? If Techradar made all its news free but its features, reviews and columns subscribers-only, would you stump up? If Q asked for 10p for its exclusive, in-depth interview with [insert your favourite pop star here] would you stump up the cash?

I’m not sure I would – not on a computer screen, anyway. I’ve written before about my truly terrifying newspaper and magazine bills, and I’m quite sure that I’d pay a sub for e-paper versions (provided the e-paper was good enough, like the new big Kindle for newspapers or a lighter, full colour version for mags). But I don’t think I’ve ever paid to read an article online. I tend to balk at registration, let alone payment. A bundle – pay for the print version, get free access to extra stuff online – might work, but online-only… I’m not convinced.

What about you? Can you imagine a way in which paying for content – with the exception of stuff that businesses will put on expenses, such as Concrete Today or whatever – could actually work?

12 replies on “Journalism: can pay, won’t pay?”

Well, when you buy a newspaper, are you paying for the cost of the newspaper or for the royalties to The Korgis for the track on the free CD included with it?

I had a paid access subscription to the New York Times and its amazing archives years ago. But that’s the New York Times, which is on a slightly different plane than Rupert’s Celebrity Side Boob Special.

No. Got by without columnist before the internet and would easily do so again. “Should I buy the Observer this weekend, there’s a Hunter S Thompson article in it? Or should I wait the couple of months until it’s in the next published volume?”

(Similar Mr Brooker. TBH, he’d probably sell more books. but, how much traffic do you think his thing about the Walkers’ Crisps brought to the Guardian site?)

Only thing that might change is I would possibly go back to buying the weekend paper on occaision.

Well, I’ve never bought paper papers, and that’s just because I hate the things, not because of the price, so I suppose I have a few pence spare every day. The sort of prices you’re talking about, yeah, I’d pay.

But no-one seems to be offering that deal. Instead, those who are trying this are offering subscription services: “Give us lots of money and you can read all of it!” Well, no. If I were going to do that, I’d just buy the paper. What I like about online reading is the pick-and-mix approach: I read a few pieces from The Guardian, The Times, The NY Times, Aftenposten, The Telegraph, The Australian Telegraph, Pravda, Macleans, NRO, The Mail, The FT, and whatever else gets linked to. I have absolutely no desire — I would, in fact, bloody detest — to read the whole or even most of any one of those publications. So I’m not going to pay for that.

And I too hate registration.

So someone needs to come up with an easy service. I’d want an online account that I could bung some money in. I log into this account and it automatically tracks my reading and tells sites to let me read their stuff, sorting out the billing in the background and showing me how much I’m spending — and, ideally, not telling the nosy bastards who I am. Perhaps a pop-up when I click saying “This article will cost you 3p. Continue?” But I don’t want to waste time registering with and logging into every damn site — apart from anything else, I don’t want their spam — and I need each site to give me some freebies, because I’m not going to pay for an article in the Jakarta Early-Evening Post-Times if I’ve never heard of them or read any of their stuff before.

In answer to your real question, Gary, no, I’m not giving you a damn penny.

Reportedly Murdoch is considering something like that for a Kindle rival – it wouldn’t be global, just FOX properties, but there are plenty of those. The only site that could make it work across websites, I suspect, is Google. Them again.

Related: apparently Amazon takes a 70% cut of newspaper subs on the Kindle. Bloody hell.

> I have absolutely no desire — I would, in fact, bloody detest — to read the whole or even most of any one of those publications. So I’m not going to pay for that.

Yeah, I agree. Mobile may be the answer – it’s already got the payment systems in place, we’re used to micropayments…

> The only site that could make it work across websites, I suspect, is Google.

I don’t know. More likely they’re the only ones who’ll realise what needs to be done and start offering the service. But anyone could do it if they get in first.

Now I think about it, it’s not dissimilar to the schemes operated by adult sites – one membership, access to multiple sites / an entire network. Or something like valve’s steam service, maybe.

I already support sites I think worthy, but for an approach like this to work there has to be some quality, time-value content, i.e., downloads, discounts, exclusives, etc. But given all that, it cannot be priced the same as tangible media, anything more than US$50 per year won’t attract anyone. It also has to be presented in a readable format- with minimal interruptions to a proper flow, qualities that many website designers ignore in a push for more ads. The New York Times and the Guardian have the content, but don’t offer an equivalent “experience.” A fast reader quickly gives up on reloading pages and intrusive animated ads. Squander Two’s comments about micro-payments and reader-optimized content makes sense to me.
Kindle for news is a joke- the worst of all worlds- a black and gray display (ala the Newton!), expensive content, lack of portability between devices and the complexity and expense of a netbook, without full internet access.

> It also has to be presented in a readable format- with minimal interruptions to a proper flow, qualities that many website designers ignore in a push for more ads.

That’s a really good point.

In fairness to the Kindle, current e-paper is a bit better than the Newton :) Changing pages is rather 1990s PDA, mind you.

Incidentally, if you do still do the dead tree media thing, newspaper subscriptions are well worth your time – provided your newsagent accepts them. Most do. You’re looking at a saving of about £20/m if you get a daily, saturday and sunday paper.

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