A watershed moment in the newspaper business


If you’ve been reading the media and marketing news over the last five days you could quite reasonably make the following assumptions.

By this time next year, two or three national newspaper brands will have been closed, hundreds, maybe thousands more regional and local newspapers will have been culled and you’ll struggle to find a national that won’t charge you to read content on its website.

We are it seems, approaching a watershed moment that’s been creeping up on us for most of the past decade; a point that will redefine the business of news media, here and around the world.

This is a huge and complex change into which is mixed the future of local communications and democracy, the future of journalism and the end of a two-hundred year old media business model.

I’m going to focus on the last bit first. Last week saw a convergence of three national newspaper stories which reveal the depth of the challenges faced by national newspapers.

News of Guardian Media Group’s (GMG) potential closure of The Observer as a Sunday broadsheet, was swiftly followed by Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that News International papers will switch to an online pay-to-read model starting with The Sunday Times and that The FT is looking at a pay-per-view model.

Caught in a cycle where print readership is declining and migrating online, where advertising revenues are in long-term decline (a process which has been given painful stimulus by this year’s media spend slump) and the failure of online advertising to close the gap, newspaper brands are naturally re-evaluating whether they can’t finally monetise their digital content through subscriptions and the like.

Unfortunately the first dotcom boom saw the newspaper business collectively back itself into an online corner.

By providing an online version of newsprint copy, cover price free, newspaper brands here and abroad reinforced the consensus that has stretched from search to music to factual information to socialising; that internet means free.

Free news is great of course, especially if it’s well written breaking news and mixed with pithy observations and insight.

The problem is that great news copy is accessible online via so many established sources including non-traditional media brands, TV and radio as well as pure digital, that it’s become a commodity.

People are used to accessing news at their desks free of charge and it is going to be a pretty difficult habit break, especially as the UK’s dominant news brand, the BBC, won’t be charging for it any time soon as Matt Wells points out in a recent piece on MediaGuardian.

Of course I’ve used copious amounts of free content as a source of inspiration to write this blog.

I simply wouldn’t be satisfied with the news content supplied by a single paper. As a news brand surfer I think the FT might be headed in the right direction with a proposed pay-per-article system, but only if it’s as easy to use as reading for free and doesn’t end up costing the earth if you dip in too regularly.

I’d rather not pay at all, but if I’m offered a way to get brilliant stuff, the BBC (or others) can’t or won’t deliver, hassle free and flexibly, I might.

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