The problem with monetising internet publications

News and publishing commentators are always apt to tell us – frequently – that the death of magazines and newspapers, in print, is imminent. Similarly, they like to bang on about how these same web-based publications are struggling with revenue. But, really, it’s not hard to work out why.

In this recent post at The Independent, last week’s announcement by Rupert Murdoch that all content in his online newspapers will move to a pay-per-read model by this time in 2010 was discussed in detail. The move follows the reality that advertising revenue isn’t bringing enough cash to the coffers to continue offering content for free. While there seems to have been quite a bit of negative rumbling about the decision, it really does make sense if companies are going to continue to exist.

The reason for the negativity, however, is that the rise of the internet has been so fast that many people started to use it like a big megaphone pointing towards printed product – and hence were simply giving their content away for free. Such a model exists on the premise that those who read the online version are going to constantly seek out the printed version, that the online version is a ‘teaser’, in a sense. Well, this would be true if teasers alone were online – and if it had always been just this – but they’ve always been full content.

Murdoch, whatever you think of the man, is one of those people you can’t ignore, simply because of his clout. A move like this, by such a powerful entity, is going to have repercussions worldwide. Let’s see if anybody else takes it up.

And yet, it took Apple’s iTunes model to do it first; so let’s not think that Murdoch’s an innovator. He’s not: he’s simply copying a model from another industry that has proved to work very well.

As the article points out:

Mr Grimshaw said publishers had misunderstood the internet: “The demand for information is larger than it has ever been but for some reason the publishing industry as a whole decided it might be a good idea if they all gave away their primary product. It does not strike me as being a smart decision. There seems to be this belief abroad that the whole mechanics of human nature and economics have changed utterly on the internet and I simply don’t believe that’s the case. If you need a piece of information or an article and the only way you can get to it is to pay for it, then people will pay.

“Although mass-market newspaper publishers are struggling with this, others, such as scientific journals and specialist vertical titles have been charging for their content online since day one and as a consequence have robust businesses.”

Anybody who stands still and just looks at things the way they are could have come to this conclusion themselves. The problem is not monetising content, but in moving from a free model to a monetised model. In order to do this, you have to work very hard to convince your client base that they are going to get a lot of value out of it, when previously they’ve gotten what they wanted for nothing more than a connection to the internet. If you now need to pay for exactly the same thing, will you continue to use it? Probably not – you may well go elsewhere. If you rely on the service, however, if these publications offer more for their money than anybody else, then revenue will rise and, maybe, subscribership will too.

It will be interesting to see how Murdoch’s model develops, and if it does find the success that he hopes it will. As you would expect, the line his companies are pushing is, firstly, that ‘quality journalism isn’t cheap’, and, secondly, that ‘it allows for reader choice and greater flexibility’.  Many of the comments at the bottom of the article argue that paying for news articles, on a pay-per-article basis is ridiculous, especially if you can get essentially the same news elsewhere, for free. Music tracks are one thing: plain old news is quite another.

If these newspapers moved away from simple reportage, and into news interpretation and essay-style examinations of news, then in my opinion that would be worth paying for. News used to be interpreted for readers, instead of simply presented to them. To my mind, if Murdoch’s model is to be successful, then not only does the presentation have to change, but so does the model of journalism on which his newspapers function. A return to interpreted news, and quality analysis, would be a highly welcome move, and a much more readable instance of journalism as well.

Of course, in past years the internet was seen as an amazing technology. People bandied about threats to printed publications for a long time – just like they did when television first became widespread, with the “death of the book” and all that – but they never took it seriously as a revenue-making style of publication with its own issues, its own mode of use, and a completely different style of readership. What needs to happen now is not simply a move to monetise content, but in making the style of the content attractive enough to warrant a change in model. If that doesn’t happen, then real change hasn’t occurred – and you could argue that the newspaper industry, if it’s not willing to make that change, might be better off dying an honourable death.

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