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

Fairfax joins News Ltd: goodbye free « Previous | |Next »
August 9, 2009

So Fairfax, along with News Ltd is also moving to charge for access to their websites including the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. The free content gravy trend must end. Consumers are going to have to learn to pay for content online as they do in print or via cable, for music and movies. The aim is to get the Googles and Huffington Posts of the online world to pay "fair compensation" for content they pick up and then sell advertising on. Yet the Google portal are creating win-win situations for publishers, whether it’s sending them traffic or providing feedback on headlines that draw in readers.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial points out, the larger story here is the familiar process of economic "creative destruction," in this case brought on by the Internet. Advertisers are fleeing to search engines, while barriers to entry in publishing have crashed. The legacy media have been struggling with the online model for years now and they have limited success to show for their studies, experiments and worries. When The New York Times abandoned its subscriber Times Select pay tier, it made the decision that it could make more from advertising to large numbers than from a combination of subscriber revenue and lower advertising dollars.

Not to be deterred Fairfax are proposing/considering two levels of access, one free and the other incurring a charge. Fairfax chief executive Brian McCarthy said that charging for online access was essential if publishers were to maintain their newsroom staff:

Monetisation will have to happen, because without monetisation of the online sites that the newspaper industries have operated very successfully, we can't afford to keep the big newsroom staffs we have. ...We have a monetisation challenge. 'We're certainly getting the [online] traffic. We're getting the advertising, but it's not a user-paid model in terms of the reader.

Though the number of people reading newspaper online sites is reported to have doubled in the past two years, the problem for the legacy newspaper industry is that while it has been giving away its core product, online advertising has not compensated for revenue decline from newspaper advertising. Nor will it.

The newspaper industry is in trouble, no one questions that. The corporate media's shift to charging customers will not compensate for revenue decline from newspaper advertising. Nor will the mixed revenue models prevent the continual layoffs of staff as the legacy media trim costs and bring them more in line with reduced revenues. Moreover the legacy media do not have a fast-paced culture of innovation.

So what are we consumers going to be charged for? The quality of the Fairfax papers is declining, and it has been for some time. Will Fairfax's plan to rebuld the media by introducing a new national online news, commentary and analysis site, ( to be launched next month, initially free) address this decline? Will it be something akin to, and in competition with, The Punch? Moreover, Slate magazine tried a paid wall and dumped it after a year.

I would not pay to access Punch, and I cannot see why I would bother to pay to read the SMH or The Age online. I would get my news from the ABC and I would not pay to read yet opinion piece from the Canberra Press Gallery----(eg., from a Michelle Grattan or a Peter Hartcher) on the woes of the Liberals. What is the premium end of legacy media? . The news media has lost touch with people's needs and interests during the past 30 years, as demonstrated by rapidly declining readerships of newspapers and audiences of broadcast news.

The Canberra Press Gallery is heavily dependent on official sources and this gives the news an inherently conservative cast and gives those in power tremendous influence over defining what is or isn't 'news'. What isn't offered is a ruthless accounting of the powers that be.' The Canberra Press Gallery does little to counter the publicity and flak from the corporations pushing their interests in the public sphere, as more often than not, it functions as part of this media machine to airbrush from reality diverse and dissenting views. The Canberra Press Gallery is noted more for its servility to power rather than speaking truth to power.

Where then do those in open source world go during this transitional period in the context of deliberative democracy? What will probably develop is an array of Web sites that focus on local news commentary. Their initial form will be compendia of links to local government sites, some blogs and even local news from other sources. Should they gain traction some will start adding original content from citizen journalists. The digital technologies here, and still emerging, make it far more efficient to provide news, entertainment, whatever, to each of us in more forms than at any time in history.

The bloggers as commentators on the events of the day need to lift their game as the forces of technologies, consumer behavior and the marketplace play themselves out. If commentary on a piece of journalism is fair use, then how they left their game? What needs to be done for us to innovate and lift our game?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:30 AM | | Comments (15)


I simply cannot see many people paying for opinion. There is too much available for free, some of it superior to anything churned out by the professionals because it's written by people who understand what they are writing about in depth. And unless the wire services also start to charge for news, who will pay to read slightly edited releases from places like Reuters when they can read the originals for nothing?

The commercial media organisations can be left to sort out their problems without advice from us. As Lyn commented on the earlier post, we should be looking hard at the ABC. I've written several times that they should ditch their attempts to compete with the commercial TV networks and concentrate on becoming a first-rate news organisation. However this will require a new charter and governance; otherwise it will continue to be the plaything of whichever CEO and board the government of the day feels like appointing.

re your comment:
"The commercial media organisations can be left to sort out their problems without advice from us."

Agreed. I'm not that interested in giving advice to them. I'm more interested in what it means for us. I would think that the bloggers would have to lift their game. We would need to provide much better commentary than they do now and do more frequent posting.

That means more time given over to blogging?

The professional Press Gallery of the corporate or mainstream media that we hear so much about are basically the cheerleaders for government, business and war.

What about those of us who avoid credit cards? How do these media companies propose to charge the likes of me who don't, or can't, get credit cards?

Not that I'd pay anyway. Comment is Free and all that, and there's the ABC for the news (and BBC for overseas news). The problem is, the media giants have to come up with content that is significantly better then what they provide now in order to persuade people to pay for it. Can they do this? I'm not sure that they can.

you will be able to read some content free but other content will be behind a paid firewall. The Financial Times does this, as do magazines like Prospect in the UK and The Monthly in Australia.

Nathan Richardson in Bring On The Techies: How Silicon Valley Can Help Save Newspapers (link in post) says:

Another promising idea is for the portals to agree on standard cost-per-click rates to be paid to publishers. In the current system, where rates range from barter to two cents a click, negotiations are like the Wild West. If the portals could agree on consistent rates for various types of publications, newspapers would save money. The portals should also agree on a fee structure that they pay for hosted stories rather than taking that content for free and failing to share any of the advertising upside. The portals’ operation margins are significant, and there is ample room to cut the newspapers in on more of what they monetize.

Sounds a better idea than paywalls for customers.

Ben Compaine in says that newspapers – whether print or digital—are worth less to advertisers than they were 20 years ago.

the Internet has given most advertisers greater market power against newspaper publishers. Many big advertisers—like car dealers, real estate offices and big box retailers—don’t need the newspapers as much.

Hence the renewed look at shaking coins from the readers or viewers.

Interesting. Now if I was going to work out a way of doing it I would do it similar to the way this blog does it.
An initial lead in paragraph or two for free.
Click to read further and access comments and comment yourself (monthly conscription required)
It will be interesting to see who they direct the marketing in relation to the paid content. I would expect initially it will be directed to those that wish to receive credible opinion/content but over time it will become more like Bolt vs The world controversial stuff to suck pleb dollars as there is many more of them and its easier to pick dumb peoples pocket than smart ones.
But perhaps I am wrong and I am due for my monthly sprinkling with fairy dust.

Gary it depends where you look and what your interests are but I already find I don't have time to read half the stuff I would like to. Of course it would be different if ALL the commercial media disappeared behind pay-per-view walls but I think this is extremely unlikely to happen. If it did, some enterprising souls would start free sites using advertising revenue.

New business models will evolve based on provision of free content. Trying to force everyone back to the old model will be about as successful as trying to make people pay to download music or get access to classified ads.

It's not bloggers that need to lift their game. Social Media Proprietors are very much in the black thankyou. It's newspapers that are broken.

I'm not sure where people think journalists get their News from - it doesn't come out of thin air. It comes from people. People who can now tell their own stories - Premiers calling elections on Twitter, Investigative bloggers that break stories, Citizen photojournalists on the spot, crowdsourced discussions that highlight inaccuracies and coverups.

If you take away the word "bloggers" and think instead of everyday Australians who upload their own version of News (5.5million daily to Facebook) blogs, photos, Twitter then the idea that bloggers have no knowledge is clearly a generalization.

Watergate's Deep Throat won't call the Washington Post. He or she will blog. The community will decide how much trust to place in the news, then distribute the news themselves. Please don't treat bloggers as distributors of secondary content (journalism). They are primary content producers and pretty good at distributing their own stories.

Reuters is going to stay free and they're serious about becoming an integrated part of what they're calling the link economy.

The ABC has the national stuff covered and is building on its local stuff as well. So there's two free sources that will stay that way.

Reuters and the ABC understand what Fairfax and News Ltd don't - that news is no longer a production/consumption proposition but a social process.

Reading comments about this over the past few days, even Andrew Bolt's crowd won't pay. A commenter there also made the salient point that without the vast audience News and Fairfax currently enjoy, they lose their political clout. That would be a win for the public sphere. But what would be the point of being Rupert Murdoch without the political influence?

With their star attractions like Bolt, Megalogenis, Overington, Grattan and Crabb behind paywalls, corporate media commentary may as well not exist any more. Blog commentary will be more important, not less. The only loss for bloggers will be the joy we've all had out of rubbishing the likes of Piers Ackerman, Shanahan and Christian Kerr. But there's still plenty of fodder there from Q and A and Insiders, so the ABC still wins.

There's another thing this press obsession fails to acknowledge, is that news as social process also does tv and radio. Thank you, Australian cross ownership laws.

Some online sources, the ABC, Crikey and some of the bigger blogs will be able to afford the subscriptions. How do News and Fairfax propose to stop people from gossiping about what they read in a newspaper?

Jason Wilson has an interesting piece on the erosion of the public sphere under Howard that plays into all this.

I agree with you about broadening blogs to include photos (Flickr) and other social media.It is also a fair point that you make:

Please don't treat bloggers as distributors of secondary content (journalism). They are primary content producers and pretty good at distributing their own stories.

It was not my intention to deny this. But the post does look backwards rather than forwards and it does imply that we live off secondary content. I agree with you that bloggers choose not to passively consume content as filtered through journalism, but seek out original/multiple sources and filter it through their social network.

Your Journalists: Bloggers give a helping hand? post is insightful about journalists acquiring new skills in the changing mediascape and that bloggers have some knowledge that can help them acquire the new skills. I'd be more than willing to give a hand as we bloggers work hard to gain an audience, by research and ideas and learning how to communicate.

Laurel's right. Apparently celebrity news sells newspapers. Am I right in thinking Ashton Kutcher, if that's how you spell it, has a huge Twitter following? If I was producing his next film I'd be begging him to leave a Twitter burley trail during the shoot. Could there be a better promo?

In the lead up to the 2007 election, locals were reporting how often the lawn was mowed and the letterbox cleared at John Howard's house, to see whether he was anticipating moving out of Kirribilli House.

There's always someone somewhere who knows something. That's why news outlets ask people for their stories. Journos who are part of, say, police corruption won't report dodgy police behaviour, as we've seen in English press. But some poor sod with a laptop whose police-provided drug supply has dried out just might. We would never have had Sam the Koala who's about to sit alongside Phar Lap if it had been otherwise.

And another thing, the public response to the Kyle Sandilands thing was highly successful. The sponsors who were plastered all over the website came under enough to pressure to cave. People everywhere were saying they wouldn't be watching Idol if he was on it. Whether that was a first taste of people power that will shape future public action remains to be seen, but my money's on that one setting the example.

The public sphere is becoming more real that it's ever been. Paywalled newspapers can only increase that momentum. We don't need them as long as the somebody who lives next door to somebody who did something newsworthy has internet access and an inclination to tell. It plays so well into the natural human love of gossip.

And another thing (since we're on my thesis topic so I hope you'll excuse me) citizen journalism doesn't mean investigative reporting in the sense that one person has to do a bunch of sleuthing and report the result. It means relating your personal experiences. The added value comes from commenters who've had similar experiences.

Laurel talks about ripples, but there's a combo ripple/snowball/action effect like happened in the Sandilands case. A lone blogger doesn't do that. Crowds do.

Murdoch and most traditional newspaper publishers such as Fairfax) believe the net is merely another media platform. If you wish to continue to fund traditional journalism, then you require similar revenues. Hence the Murdoch/ Financial Times charging strategy. It likely to be some sort of premium offering to customers, for why would you pay when you can get the same thing somewhere else for free?The standard fare Murdoch and Fairfax are offering at their newspapers can't be charged for. So they will need to slim down.

On the other hand, many hold that the digital media revolution is in the process of transforming journalism-- the old-style form of top-down journalism funded by media moguls. In this new economy links give content value.