The news that the Sun and the Telegraph are switching to paywall systems for their websites has divided the opinions of many people. Should the news be free online? Can papers survive if they give their content away for free?
Here, two wannabes look at the pros and cons:
Journalism is not – has never been – cheap or easy. Sending people around the world and then printing what they report a million or so times every day, 364 days a year, is a costly enterprise.
The online revolution has done some truly incredible things for journalism as a whole. Twitter, YouTube, smartphones. All have made the industry a much more interesting place and have made the job of a journalist a great deal more varied and exciting than it was 15 years ago.
But it’s come at a cost. The birth of online newspaper websites means that all the hard work that goes in to filling a paper is now being viewed for free. As a direct result, the circulation of papers is dropping. Why buy a big, bulky paper when you can view the same content for free in the palm of your hand?
There will always be those of us who still want – nay, need – the smell and feel of a newspaper. Most of us are journalists. As long as we’ve got ink in our veins it will continue to stain our fingers every morning. But we cannot ignore the mass movement of readers to online. We have to find ways to adjust.
The news that the Telegraph and the Sun have decided to switch to paywall should not come as a shock. The Telegraph recently announced that they were having to make 30 involuntary redundancies in order to put more resources into online content and apps.
The chief executive of News International Mike Darcey recently announced that the company had “no choice but to start charging for the online version of the Sun”.
As reported by the Guardian, he said the free website was threatening the circulation and revenues of the tabloid, and will go behind a paywall in the second half of 2013 in a radical rethink about offering readers content free of charge. When or if other papers are likely to switch is still up in the air, but the shift seems inevitable.
Papers like the Guardian and Independent have rapidly dropping print circulations but growing online figures. The Guardian gets nearly six readers clicking on to the digital edition for every five readers in print. The question about online-only has been floated for a long time. Newspapers have still got a life ahead of them but it is not a sustainable one if profit is suffering. If online-only is to become a realistic option for successful-online/unsuccessful-print papers like the Guardian then they need to find a way to monetise this.
To see their options, they only have to look to everyone’s most loved and hated paper, the Daily Mail. Say what you will about their content, but their marketing team is razor sharp. The paper and online site vary a great deal but both are now making a profit. Link-baiting and the ‘sidebar of shame’ might seem reprehensible to some but it’s working to keep both versions alive. The Daily Mail still publishes good investigative reporting – to fund work like this there needs to be money coming in.
But could the Guardian/Independent survive using this system? Perhaps not. Paywalls may seem obtrusive and like an annoyance but if people still want to see the same reporting then it should be a fair trade off for most. There seems to have developed a sense of entitlement to free news. But the newspaper business is just that, a business.
Most people wouldn’t expect the latest Photoshop for free, but as much hard work goes into producing that as does a paper. At a time where some much news is out their for free, papers need to make some tough decisions in order to survive.
The fight against paywalls needs to stop.
If we want to support the industry as it moves online then we should recognise that we cannot do it without a small cost – one that is undeniably worth it.
Paywalls have become a staple for several several sites that have something to declare. Premium content? Yes. But also that their web traffic is falling and their product isn’t shipping. The internet was long seen by the Murdoch empire as a way of cashing in on the people who were prepared to pay for things on the internet, which is fine, as long as you have something attractive to deliver. On a website where the cream of the content is being shortened and more finely tuned for a press edition, there really isn’t any need for a consumer to make the leap to a subscription.
The price difference would be a great incentive, were it not for the fact that few people read things online. Okay, lets be a little more concise, the majority of people don’t read things online. If we want to go further, we can assume that a large chunk of these people especially won’t want want to read long articles on the internet. If people are going to read a paper, they will likely buy one in a shop, as they won’t be the people to buy things online unless they really have the time.
This is because the main problem with the internet is that there is simply too much of it. Why would people pay for a subscription to an online newspaper when there are literally thousands of others that don’t require payment? The content may be worth it, it may even be exceptional journalism that is required reading for anyone in the know, but it won’t entice someone who is web savvy and would be happier surfing somewhere else.
So that’s the old-style newspaper fans out, the web-savvy new media types out, who’s left? Well, the middle, and considering that that’s actually most of the human race, let’s examine whether they would enjoy it either…
Brian Stelter of The New York Times has said that detractors against paywalls for the reasons that “information should be free” in the context of news content are unrealistic because, put simply, “Information has never been free”. Okay, this is true, and to a certain extent he’s right, but when we consider something as powerful as Wikileaks giving the most important information completely free and in an instant on the internet, we have two extremes that show two sides of the argument, and it’s the Wikileaks side that is providing the content free of charge. And that’s the side that’s winning, despite what hard-working journalists might want.
When The Daily Telegraph and The Sun announce that they are considering paywalls for their news outputs, all it does is ring warning bells to investors that many people are going to stop using their site. Yes, they’ll keep the die-hard fans, maybe even a few of the people who aren’t so crazy but are using it from habit, but most of the people who have the sites bookmarked will likely take to deleting that bookmark.
The principal problem behind this is threefold:
It seems like the people who want the paywalls are those desperately in need of a cash infusion. When we look at the papers that are considering them are mostly right-wing papers with an elderly fan-base, we can assume that these people aren’t the type to make an online purchase that often at all, let alone one that requires them to be online a lot to get the full benefit.
Perhaps there are exceptions, as there always are when you’re dealing with such massive readership sums, the majority is really the only figure that matters. That’s the figure that’s not going to pay, and that’s the figure that’s going to be the nail in the coffin of a dying industry that’s struggling to survive.
Luke Garratt is a Trainee Broadcast Journalist and Masters Student working for Winchester News Online. He has previously worked for the BBC, the Independent and several local papers. He writes about journalism and media law on his personal blog here and occasionally tweets here.
Who do you think is right? Should more papers switch to paywalls? Should they make an effort to keep the news free and find other ways of finding profit?
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