Paid for content-will it work?

November 30, 2009 at 2:17 pm (new age journalism) (, , , , , )

The latest challenge (albeit not a totally new one) that now faces journalism and its role in the digital age is whether to charge readers for online content. For the past few years, both regional and national newspapers have let their content be accessed for free for anyone across the globe to read and comment on.

But this was while the printing side of newspapers was fairly safe. Now they are playing a different game. Sales are down, and continuing to fall in most areas, advertising has taken a hit with the recession and some newspapers have crumpled entirely. So now Johnston Press have gone out on a limb and decided to start charging for their online content. This is not a new idea, it’s one that has been hit around the proverbial journalism tennis court for a while now, with Rupert Murdoch playing team captain.

I can understand the logic, people are increasingly turning to websites to get their news fix, as it’s instantly accessible, updated frequently so the news is breaking and is easier to access (you don’t have to leave your house to pop down the local shop to get your news anymore). And what else? Oh yes, it’s free! And that is one of the key issues that Mr Murdoch and Johnston seem to either be forgetting, neglecting or just undermining. One of the key aspects of being able to consume news via the World Wide Web is that you don’t have to pay a penny for it.

So will it work? It depends on a lot of factors. They have to have a loyal audience. If the titles have a readership who follows them avidly, then they might be willing to pay for their news. The price is also a huge issue. A couple of pence a story might be fine, or perhaps a few pounds a month in a subscription would be passable, but people aren’t likely to fork out much more for it, especially during a recession. And it’s not exactly the high-flying figures that newspapers need if they are going to struggle through these tough times.

But what is probably the most important point is that they need to have a monopoly on their local area and the news they cover. And not many titles do. Which is where the problem comes in. Readers are not going to pay for something they can find elsewhere. The BBC local websites will always be a massive competitor, and they are not likely to start charging. There are also hundreds of other sites who will cover regional and national news for free. I heard from a previous tutor that the Guardian have put a beat blogger into Cardiff, so even national newspapers are starting to push their way into the hyper local scene, which again means another rival for regional newspapers.

It’s not that I don’t want it to work, but I think other ideas are needed. As someone who is a champion for printed news and trained in newspaper journalism, I can’t imagine a world without hard copies of newspapers, but online developments can’t be ignored, and if anything they could be the saviour for newspaper titles. But charging for content is a risk strategy that I’m not sure will pay off in the end.

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