It's now official. The Times and The Sunday Times will soon have separate websites and will charge people for access. News International, the newspapers’ parent company, has announced that people will be offered a day’s use for £1, or £2 for a week’s subscription.
For me this is one of the most important announcements in a very long time. As a journalist who believes in the value of his craft I have long been fed up of the way that it's just become 'normal' for anything online to be free. Why should that be? I write a feature for a newspaper and, without my say-so, it appears in the online edition too - for no additional payment. As a reader I've become fed up too with the amount of crap that is clogging up the net - words used just to target search engines rather than to deliver useful information to readers. Just this week I was offered between £15 and £25 to write 500-word pages for a fairly well-known travel website about flights and hotels in particular destinations. This is the sum-zero of this game. Content that's of little real use to anyone aimed in the main at getting people to land on a page - even if they click straight off again, just to earn ad revenue. And the people who write it being paid a pittance to do it. Something has to change.
More interesting still, it's looking increasingly likely that Murdoch (who is of course the real player behind all this as the Chairman of News International) will bar all his content from Google and conversely do a deal to make it available on Microsoft's competing search engine Bing. Google - no longer the search engine that covers everything? Wow... that is a serious cat amongst the pigeons and something only a huge player like News International would be able to consider.
So, I applaud the intent. But will it work?
1) People hate paywalls. Ironically I wanted to link to a piece on the FT that I found on Google about this - but I hit a 'register to read this' wall. So I went elsewhere to find something. I just struggle to see how they will get the casual browser to convert to becoming a paid-up subscriber. Hitting a paywall will not make me want to subscribe.
2) Differentiation is all important. News is totally commoditised. Sorry, but I just don't see people paying for news. If I can't read it on Times Online I will read it on the Guardian or the Independent or literally hundreds of other sites. (There is a possibility of course that everyone will follow News International's lead. I wonder if NI management have been having quiet chats off the record with their opposites at other major publishers?But even then there's the BBC. ) Features of course are a completely different err, story. I had a fascinating chat with someone who works at News International last week about the way that NI plans to have The Sunday Times' online content focussed on Features - print, images, video and the Times on News. I can see a payment model working for the ST's more feature-orientated approach because this content will be genuinely unique.
3) What will that mean for writers? Well, again, according to my contact at NI there are serious budgets available for pure online content. Our conversation was all about the importance of video, and I can see how exploiting the technical advantages of web over print seems the logical way to add value here. So, maybe, just maybe, it will be possible for journalists to make a living writing/creating content for the web? If that's the case what will that mean for the travel writer? Now it's not just notepad and SLR to carry around, you'll need a video camera, tripod and mic too and the requisite skills to use this new kit.
4) What will that mean for advertising? This is the one that really fascinates me. I watched the video clip on that link above to the timesonline of Times Editor James Harding explaining (not particularly effectively in my opinion) why this step is being taken. Ironically, I had to watch an advert before the piece. I hate that. God, I'd pay not to have that crap getting in the way if I could. I loathe the increasing banality of online advertising - as the media landscape gets more cluttered advertisers resort to ever crasser ways to try and grab our attention - people walking across the screen, pop ups, things jumping around in the sidebars. For me it just doesn't work. An ad-free reading/viewing environment on-line would be heavenly. But will Timesonline and Sunday times online still carry ads? I bet they do.
Fascinating times. What do you think this means for writers and for readers?