Bob Wrong Again

I see Private Eye magazine in its column the “Street of Shame” has some things to add this week about Bob Fisk, the Middle East correspondent. Bob believes the Anglo-American media demonstrated double-standards when it mourned and covered extensively the recent death in Syria of Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, a friend of mine and one of the bravest reporters I have had the privilege to know.

As far as he is concerned the Anglo-American media doesn’t cover enough the deaths of Arabs and has ignored Israeli excesses in Gaza. Private Eye has some useful corrective comments to make and also cites a blog posting of mine on Bob’s tendency to make things up, embellish and to lift other reporters’ stories without attribution.

One thing that Private Eye failed to note is that Marie devoted her career to ensuring that Sunday Times readers were informed of the horrors of war, and reported movingly, for example, on Iraqi civilians killed by allied bombs.

iPad Could Save Newspapers

Speaking in Washington DC yesterday Rupert Murdoch said he had “got a glimpse of the future last weekend with the Apple iPad. It is a wonderful thing.”

“If you have less newspapers and more of these… it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry,” he added.

His comments point to what I suggested in a posting the other day: that the paywall News International intends to place around The Times and Sunday Times this summer is now part of a more thought through strategy than when Murdoch first started to threaten to do it last year.

In a Q@A session last week The Times editor James Harding clearly indicated that the pricing difference between the digital editions and print editions was aimed at making the digital far more attractive.

I think Murdoch is right that the iPad and similar tablet devices could well be the saving of the “newspaper” industry.

Johnstone Press Abandons Paywall

The Johnstone Press, the publisher of the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, is to scrap an experimental paywall it erected around several of its newspapers. The trial, which saw different pricing and schemes being tried across its local and regional UK newspaper empire, saw poor take-up. The scrapping of the scheme comes just days after News International announced it intended to charge from June for online access to The Times and Sunday Times. Will the national titles fare better?

News International has started to market heavily the pay scheme, offering early registration and a chance to preview the new sites and multi-media fare that will accompany the introduction of the charge.

Game-Changing at The Times

Apparently The Times editor, James Harding, shares my thought that there is a financial flaw in News International’s paywall plan. Why pay 8.50 pounds a week for the print editions of The Times and Sunday Times when you will be able from June to read both online for 2 pounds?

According to Harding that price difference is exactly the point. In a Q&A session with readers he made this comment:  “I hope that what we’re doing is providing a simple price and one that, even in these difficult times, is affordable. It’ll be £2 a week for all seven days. The print editions will cost you £8.50. And, I hope, that over time you’ll see that the digital editions of The Times and The Sunday Times will give you so much more…”

In other words this is a game-changing approach designed to slowly kill the papers and turn them into digital online products while bringing the readers along at the same time. Harding says that the digital product to be launched will be innovative. “We can do so much more online: we can provide video, interactive graphics, personalised news feeds and a chance for people to engage, directly, with our journalists.”

Obviously, this is a big market to play in with some tough rivals. They include the BBC and ITN, who both have free sites. Can News International pull this off? Certainly it is a brave move and one preparing the papers for a time when most readers will read their papers on tablets, I-Pads and computers. Curious, though, that one had to find out Harding’s thoughts in a Q&A session and that News International hasn’t marketed or announced such thinking behind the paywall.

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.