Pay-per-News: Murdoch’s flawed plan

07Aug09

I am open to the obvious changes that journalism is undergoing, the Internet has revolutionised how we access our information after all. However, after hearing Twitter rumours about Rupert Murdoch charging readers to read online news sites, I brushed the idea aside thinking nothing of it but a scheme that would go no further than an investor hysterically slapping the idea pitcher on the back howling with laughter that it’ll never work.

I was wrong.

The Independent wrote a wordy (what else) feature on the subject citing that the Murdoch empire including the Wall Street Journal, the Sun and the Times as well as the FT would all be charging readers to access their articles either by yearly subscription or a iTunes style pay-per-article system before summer 2010. Pay-per-news.

“They” are saying that it is not preposterous to ask readers to pay to read articles, after all, you pay your licence fee, your quid for a paper, your broadband…”They” are also relying on their “loyal” subscribers boasting the many thousands of hits they receive and presuming all of them will merrily fork out to read what they once used to get for free.

Advertising funds have plummeted due to the recession hence the Death of Print however for media professionals, surely they have announced that they will be getting their revenue from the hapless public at a rather tactless moment.

For those bookish types… or B-Movie types, you may recall a fine tale called Flowers for Algernon. The story is about a slow-thinking American who is given medical treatment which temporarily allows him the brain function of a prolific academic. Sadly the treatment’s effects wane and the man cannot handle having his mind taken away from him and so kills himself.

This story echoes the issues we are seeing with our access to media. We were happily plodding along with newspapers, radio bulletins and Trevor McDonald and then the Internet gave us that free browsing power, that power to access stories as they progress and to see the many dimensions of a story including such things as comment, picture galleries, graphic analysis and blow-by-blow updates.

Murdoch’s plan is deeply flawed and I am not afraid of seeming anti-progress here. He is far too disengaged from the audiences of his media circus to interpret their movements in a way that will secure the future of his enterprise. Commuters expect a Metro at the station, why buy a Times when the train is at the platform? If there is a free option then they will take it.

The Guardian has not squeaked any admissions to mounting the iTunes-style news-rental bandwagon. Similarly the BBC news website, who come a close second to the Guardian as far as media traffic is concerned, have no intention of adding anything on top of our licence fee. That’s the Times readership catered for. Rather than the FT, people will look to Bloomberg, perhaps, and as far as The Sun is concerned, there are already packs of celebrity bloggers doing a much more thorough and regular job. And if you were wondering about Page 3 – I’m pretty sure 99% of the internet could take on Heidi from Colechester who thinks Harriet Harman is a great role model. Mr Harman would happily partake in the market research, I’m sure.

Murdoch’s portfolio does not have a monopoly on our information and so he is hammering the nails into his own coffin. People will go elsewhere. Or even crazier, people will actually buy a newspaper!

Another matter he may be overlooking is the contributors. Journalists do not go into the profession for the money, they go into journalism to tell stories, to tell the news, to tell the public what it is in it’s interests to know. Some may consider the notion of taking away a readily available information source where the news is concerned is restricting the public from that information. Not ideal for the reporter’s notions of keeping the world abreast of sleaze and corruption.

Nevertheless the plans will go ahead. I understand that news corporations have to find revenue from somewhere other than their floundering advertising fees but I cannot see how loyalty to a newspaper is going to prevail over sheer tightness.

In my opinion, those handing out the free news will win while pay-per-news enjoys less traffic than a Helmsdale rush-hour.

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