Climbing up the (pay)walls

6 12 2009

In the beginning, there was news.

Then people, for argument’s sake let’s call them journalists, thought it would be a good idea to print news. The newspaper was born.

Many years later, the internet came along.

The internet quickly became a repository for anonymously abusing people, watching pornography, and of course reading news.

When the UK’s national papers jumped on the online bandwagon they thought it would be a good idea to make their content free to whoever wanted to read it.

Sales of physical newspapers were not in as dire a state as they are now and anyway, if sales started to fall away they could always start charging and people would be happy to pay up, right? Wrong.

“Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.” – Pink Floyd, 1973

Last week, former Cardiff Journalism School student and current UK editor of paidcontent.org Rob Andrews came back to his old stomping ground to give a talk about the problems facing newspapers as they try and bring in money from online sales.

The main issue is very simple. People don’t want to pay for something they can find for free somewhere else.

Rob explained how difficult it is for online sales to put money in the kitty

You see, you should never underestimate people’s willingness to shop around for freebies.

And with so many news aggregators around online, it is becoming easier for people to find free news if they are determined enough.

While some papers, including the Financial Times, have experienced some success after setting up paywalls, Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to do the same with The Times is likely to be less fruitful.

Because you’re worth it

Now I’m not saying many – if not all – of the UK’s national papers deserve income from their online stories.

While the stories themselves may be the same as those available for free elsewhere on the web, The Times and its counterparts frequently display a far greater standard of journalism.

Take, for example, this brilliantly-written article from Daniel Finkelstein.

It shows a lot of depth that cannot be found elsewhere, yet people will still prefer to read articles like this which are free, informative and to the point.

Keep it snappy

When I went on a work experience placement at BBC Sport, one of the first tasks I was given was to write four-paragraph stories.

I was told that four paragraphs are all you see on the first page of Ceefax, and that on the website you have to scroll down to get to paragraph five.

People don’t like scrolling down, I’ve heard. It requires too much effort.

The difference with the FT and other similar sites is that they provide expert information.

People go on sites like this because they are looking for something specific. And by ‘something specific’ I don’t just mean ‘Who is Katie Price going out with this week’ or ‘What film did I see that actor in?’

I mean information that people can trust, specialist information that readers need to be able to rely on.

Mmmm… free goo

Recent trends seem to show that people are moving towards free sites, no matter how uninformed or useless the information they provide is.

And the polls which Rob showed us seem to suggest that forcing people to pay for news will be ambitious at best.

The one potential saving grace, which seems like a fairly remote possibility, is that Murdoch’s plans will drive readers back to print media.

Is this the end for print media?

But have people really just stopped reading papers because they can get the exact same stories for free, or is it because they simply don’t like carrying a paper around with them every day and ending up with a pile of useless ‘old news’?

The Evening Standard would seem to side with the former, jumping theĀ  gun by becoming a freesheet and – one would assume – seeking to get advertising companies on their side early and generate something approaching a steady revenue.

And while Murdoch hopes to buck the trend, few have been able to convince themselves that paywalls are the answer to journalism’s woes.

After all, the success of paywalls requires something far more difficult than writing an award-winning story. It requires convincing people to change their habits.

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