My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Should online news be free? Yes, but the debate grinds on

The 'Are newspapers cutting their own throats by not charging for their product online?' debate grinds on. Inside most media companies the battle lines are drawn: on one side are those in favour of charging for premium services - 'we're mad to give away this great content we've made' - and on the other are those against - 'if we charge, our audience will go somewhere else'.

The Wall Street Journal, recently taken over by Rupert Murdoch, is the highest profile example of a newspaper that used to charge, and had enviable subscriber numbers, but decided to abandon it in favour of ramping up readership and selling more ads on the back of that.

Times blogger Justin Fox posts this week about the pointlessness of arguing about it. "News was already pretty close to free long before the Internet came along," he says, in response to a 'we're mad to give it away' post from LA Times business columnist David Lazarus.

"It was free on TV, free on the radio, and effectively free in newspapers when you consider all the valuable stuff that came packaged with it for 25 or 50 cents, from comics to crosswords to classifieds to supermarket ads. And unlike, say, a song - which was free on the radio but worth spending money on to be able to play again and again whenever you wanted to hear it - a day-old newspaper was usually less than worthless."

While some point to younger generations not being willing to pay for online content, Justin shows that's not the case. They buy music online happily enough, and pay for games. They just don't want to pay for news.

And neither do I. Why would I? There's no shortage of news online. If I can't read the story on one site I can read it on countless others. If I reach a paywall, I give up and go somewhere else. And don't get me started on those US sites which require you to register, albeit for free, but then don't accept your postcode because it's not local. So much for globalisation.

The point is, unless you organise a giant, worldwide news cartel to set a global price (not going to happen), you can't charge for news online. Archives, maybe, but not daily news.

Trouble is, increasingly people don't want to pay for a newspaper either. Not even the people who wail about how important quality journalism is to the health of a country. Seriously, next time someone bemoans how outsourcing/globalisation/greedy management are eroding journalistic values, ask them how often they buy the paper. Nine times out of ten, in my experience, they'll say they don't buy it at all, or they buy it once a twice a week. Not quite enough, then, to keep 'quality journalism' afloat.

So, if they're not buying the paper, and people under 35 aren't buying the paper, who is?