Murdoch to Mount the Charge

So Rupert Murdoch will start in June throwing a paywall around the websites of The Times and Sunday Times. Online readers will be charged £1 for a day’s access or £2 for a week’s subscription. Payment will allow access to both websites.

A weekly subscription will give readers also access apparently to an e-paper version and other new, as yet unnamed, digital applications. Those who already subscribe to the print edition of either paper will also gain free online access. The Times editor is gung-ho: “Now, we are leading the way again. Our new website – with a strong, clean design – will have all the values of the printed paper and all the versatility of digital media. We want people to do more than just read it – to be part of it,” James Harding announced in a press release.

He continued: “The coming editions of The Times on phones, e-readers, tablets and mobile devices will tell the most important and interesting stories in the newest ways. Our aim is to keep delivering The Times, but better.”

Now let’s see if it works. I have written elsewhere on this blog that Murdoch doesn’t really get the Web – News International was much slower than its UK newspaper rivals at the Guardian and the Telegraph, to exploit the Web. Likewise in the U.S. with American cable rivals. His belated internet purchases to try to catch up have fizzled badly: he over-paid for already established sites and has generally made a hash of them, MySpace being the best example.

Paywalls as conceived by Murdoch may be over aggressive at this stage. Total paywalls may well put off users, especially in the absence of rivals following suit – a blend of free and paid-for is far more likely to succeed. Paywalls have an effect of reducing online social marketing, blocking blogs and social media sites from linking to stories and giving them wider dissemination.

Clearly, as the online World develops and as new tablets and e-reader devices are developed, paying for content is likely to reassert itself: there will be a convergence of hardware, reading habits and the ability to personalise and market more surgically that will encourage payment. And those who really want real news – you know, the kind that actually involves news-gathering and reporting facts as opposed to opinion-mongering and shouting at opponents on talk shows – will need to pay if they want to get anything of value or authority. News-gathering is expensive. The waning of real reporting and the reduction in the numbers of real reporters able to place events and facts into context in an informing way is becoming ever more apparent.

But is Murdoch too early and too over-reaching? I suspect so. For instance, News International clearly has made the decision to keep the price low for online access in order not to drive away online readers. But is the price too low, if the company wants to keep people buying the actual print editions? Why spend 6 pounds a week on buying the hard-copy The Times when one pound will get you a week’s online access plus other features? Two pounds will get you both papers online. And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of a copy of the print edition of the Sunday Times. Okay, you can subsrcibe to the papers and get everything. But we shall see what we see.

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