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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

goodbye to free online newspapers? « Previous | |Next »
May 11, 2009

Rupert Murdoch said recently that the days of free online content of News Corps' newspapers are about to end. He will shift to a payment model within a year. This is his response to the collapse in advertising revenues and increased competition from web-only rivals this year---newspapers (and magazines online) had to make money from readers as well as advertisers, given that ad revenues will not come back at same level.

Subscription schemes in this context, such as those offered by the Wall Street Journal Online, the Financial Times, and the AFR begin to look attractive for media corporations. Will it work for The Australian? The New York Times introduced Times Select in 2005, putting some popular columnists and archive content behind a subscription wall, but closed it in 2007. Putting a wall around content kept it out of the national conversation and devalued its brand.

I have doubts that The Australian has any content people would pay for since they do not offer a unique product. Or, in another way to put this, is The Australian able to ensure a greater differentiation in quality between print and web in order to justify the price premium? Not with the current product.

The mass media do have to get used to the idea that we consumers have been force fed advertising and we don't really like it. When I look at Foxtel in Australia I'm stunned---the bottom line is that consumers are being charged via subscription for advertising! My guess is that the owners of content rich sites will have to decide, do they want advertising or do they want subscribers? Trying to get both and rip off us consumers will not wash.

The news or entertainment industries will diminish their audience by charging, which in turn reduces advertising revenue. The Australian online is a shop window and it is free as a way of selling the site or the News Corp brand to you. The shop window entices you inside. But there has to be some good content inside, and for News Corp that means more than its standard conservative polemics.

Update
Clay Shirkey's Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable is the text to read in response to Murdoch's payment for digital content proposal. Shirkey says that the curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan:

“Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

He says that round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

He adds that many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:21 PM | | Comments (14)
Comments

Comments

Snap!
Takes the words right out of my mouth. Am hard pressed to bother with them now, they are so poor.
But to pay for them!
They should pay us.
Not fit for wiping budgie cages

How does Murdoch plan to compete with the ABC online if he starts charging for news content?

There is no way that subscriptions or pay per view will ever restore the bottom lines of the good old days, no matter what model they come up with.

The mass media have to get their heads around the idea that the mass audience that sustained them in the past is going the way of the dinosaur. That's partly their own doing, since they decided to stop selling news and start selling opinionated celebrities instead.

They divided the market into tabloid and broadsheet, then further into left and right, then further again into lifestyle sections and advertorial, until they're on the verge of having 5 customers each and giving newspapers away to create the appearance of circulation.

The Australian online is currently surviving off the hitcount generated by people who read it for laughs. Andrew Bolt is probably News Ltds most valuable asset. They've niched themselves out of existence.

Lyn,
yeah Murdoch has a bit of a problem in Australia and the UK. I'm sure they are furiously working on it somewhere in New York, given News Corps 40% drop in operating profit.

I won't read The Australian online now while its free!

The printed newspaper has had its day; it is resource-wasteful, expensive to produce and distribute and dated. Industrial age stuff. So the newspaper economy crashes.The newspapers saw the crisis coming long ago but were unable to think their way out of it because they never reconciled themselves to the loss of their publishing premises: the fabled rivers of gold. There is no business model in news right now.

Next is a decade of experimentation, opportunity and chaos

The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is currently holding an inquiry into the future of journalism. Steve Coll from The Washington Post says that American journalism has entered a period of creative destruction.

Maybe there is a need to make a distinction between newspapers and journalism. Separate them.

Clay Shirkey's Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable is backward looking---this is what is going down the tube of history and becoming an industrial relic like an old steam train.

He doesn't say what the new experiments or emerging digital models are. What are they? Anyone know?

"He doesn't say what the new experiments or emerging digital models are. What are they? Anyone know?"

Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post, Tina Brown at the Daily Beast, the folks at Pajamas media and locally, Crikey and Business Spectator, probably have some useful suggestions.

Possibly Mike M.
Everything still bounces off the free standing mass media though- take away mass media and you take away Crikey, Huffington- these have taken over the critical faculty once occupied by commentators, now occupied by offensive blowhards.
But the OZ, etc, can't work out which (component of ) demographic to go after, because they make up not easily reconcilable parts of the big demographic they need to hold to survive financially and for want of a better word; spiritually.. The whole is important in the public opinion "polis" or civil society sense for both tabloid and broadsheet; having someone to "write to" or "converse" with.
However the "conversation" component doesn't occur when you are being hectored by the likes of Greg Sheridan or Glen Milne-its only ever one way.
As it stands, if they massage one demographic component they antagonise that components rivals, tho.
The have kept the Right commentariat because these allow for policy and opinion shaping that conforms with both the media magnates and their big business confrateres aims, but the cat- the audience/readership- is out of the bag, and from that aspect alone it collapses for MSM, particularly when their goal is to manipulate rather than inform and discuss.
So Things Fall Apart.
We react to their bombasitics by heading off online, so they retaliate like angry parents by threatening to withdraw the basis on which we are able to approach online media; our strategy for avoiding their homogeneity/ heterogeneity goals.

MikeM,
They are examples of new modes of news and public controversy emerging online. They indicate that in the range of opinion it accommodates, the online media environment has advantages over the traditional world of print.

However, Crikey and Business Spectator serve niche audiences and do indicate the privatisation of news and commentary. They do involve the creation of an engaged public—albeit one that is affluent, better educated, politically involved, and who have the resources and motivations to search out information online.

The implication here is the further development of an information-stratified society.

Peter,
a good account of the decline of newspapers and its implications can be found in Paul Starr's Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption) in The New Republic. This is an argument about why American politics and society are about to be changed for the worse.

Starr argues that the crisis in newspapers is a crisis for American democracy because the “public goods” they manufacture will not be easy to replace. “Public goods are notoriously under-produced in the marketplace, and news is a public good—and yet, since the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers have produced news in abundance at a cheap price to readers and without need of direct subsidy. More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done.

But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt.” Starr's concern is that there will be more corruption and malfeasance in government with fewer eyes on the people in power.

Nan
Paul Starr debates the significance of the emerging digital media here at Are we on track for a golden age of serious journalism? at the UK based Prospect magazine. Starr debates the issue with Steven Johnson who argues in favour of an online media renaissance. Starr does not think so. He thinks that it is all downhill, adding

It would be foolish to predict whether the internet will ultimately be able to sustain the type of news reporting for the general public that newspapers have historically produced. But it would be even more foolish to ignore the evidence of what is happening today, and to rely on a happy vision of inexorable progress brought on by the internet. The danger of that blithe indifference to unpleasant realities is that it may lull us into inaction. Both government policy and philanthropy now need to be spurred to support independent journalism in new ways.

Starr assess the new digital media in terms of the threefold problem: financing public-service journalism, engaging the public, and producing political accountability.

Anon is right about newspapers and journalism not being the same thing. Nor are newspapers, tv, radio and the internet the same thing.

I personally can't see the HuffPo American model translating to the Australian environment, because the US and Australia are not the same thing, and because HuffPo only pays some of its contributors. Crikey and Business Spectator are good models for the smaller Australian market and show what can be done with brand loyalty.

At this point, I can't see news being rescued by news media, but I can see journalism being rescued by journalists. Decentralisation looks to be a pattern trend everywhere else. Why not news?

The other thing we need to do is learn to ignore utopian/dystopian visions of the internet. It's not one thing, unless you're refering to the network structure, in which case you're not talking about what people do, and could do, with it. Thus, the logic of the feed reader.

We already have an information-stratified society. If my understanding of history is even vaguely right, information stratification is an ongoing theme of human civilisation. Doing something about it would involve doing something about all of the other structural stuff that go with it.

I'm inclined to agree with Starr on the civic function of blogs---ie., holding politicians accountable. They don't do it. As he points out blogs are largely dependent upon the more traditional media, especially newspapers and television, for the bulk of their commentary content.

Sure blogs can pound away at an issue much more than a newspaper. But it is still the mainstream press that provides legitimacy to stories or issues and it is the mainstream press that forces politicians to react to negative publicity.

This blog has often made the point that the mainstream media in Adelaide (eg., Murdoch's tabloid, The Advertiser) is pretty poor, but it doesn't cover local issues. So much for citizen journalism.