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Should more publishers charge for online content?

Say what you like about Rupert Murdoch’s statement about the web model “malfunctioning” (most already have), but even his closest rival gives him credit for “very forcefully putting [paid content] on the agenda for discussion.”

One thing is clear – if we take FT.com’s carefully developed, and web-specific content charging model as an example: innovation in monetising content requires experimentation, a separate approach and logic to print, and the solution may well be different for every title.

The logic of print would say ‘paid or free’, or ‘put up a pay wall’, but the truth is that monetising online content is potentially far more varied, not to mention subtle.
"Attempts to force the internet to adapt to offline business models are doomed to failure. Just look up the history of music sharing online if you want an example of how the internet adapts to attempts to control it. The network will find a way."Shane Richmond - telegraph.co.uk

The paid content debate recalls elements of an event AOP held back in 2004,(“in the midst of an advertising downturn” etc.), though in the meantime, many publishers have made significant inroads in diversifying their business models, as we found out at an AOP Forum in January.

For anyone who would still like to turn back the clock, however, doubting the value of publishers developing communities, or inviting reader contribution to this (or any debate), witness the following comment on the New York Times:

"The web is not a medium of passive transfer of information like television or print media. Spoon-feeding ideas to people is sooooo last century.

Engage the consumers who visit these sites in more interactive dialog. Do surveys, solicit feedback, collect ideas from them.Turn these sites into a marketplace of ideas.

Offer value-added services around such crowd-sourced content. Become analytical engines. Use these sites to build an agile, real-time and participatory democracy."
Mikhail - NY

From a New York Times Article entitled 'Pay walls alone won't save newspapers'.


On an AOP LinkedIn group discussion on paid content, Tim Faircliff, AOP Co-Chair and General Manager, Media at Thomson Reuters adds:
"I liked the quote I heard from an exec at Time Magazine regarding paid for content - "I buy branded bottled water when I have free water from taps all around"... we have all done it ... so the inference is that paid for content is possible in a world hooked on free. The challenge is how we package the 'water' and differentiate from tap ! Anyone for fizzy news ?"

Diversifying further

The debate has shifted dramatically, following Murdoch's comments, towards monetising content directly, but there are also significant, in some cases untapped opportunities for digital publishers to diversify, without having to radically reinvent themselves in the way Nokia, or as it used to be known, Finnish Rubber Works, has.

As outlined at our January event, some areas currently being exploited include:

  • White labels, from Sun Bingo, to the variety of services being offered online by the highly profitable AutoTrader site
  • Paid data and insight services, as typified by CBS Interactive’s GameSpot Trax service
  • There is still a great deal to be learned from the use of monetising recommendations to readers, and we know telegraph.co.uk is experimenting in this area. It was telling, perhaps, that Nick Suckley said at an event last year “affiliates are successful publishers.”
  • The web remains a highly economical global distribution network, but it’s safe to say there is still untapped potential in global monetization – AOP is holding a forum on this subject on 8 July – register your interest.

"The current days of the Internet will soon be over"

In one sense at least, few could disagree that Murdoch’s above statement is correct: the change the web is affecting, both to business and society, shows no sign of slowing down, which may be a reason for optimism in itself -

In a sign of just how quickly things can change, just 18 months ago, Murdoch himself was said to be considering making the Wall Street Journal free and completely ad-funded.

"It's possible to lament a media culture with this many new participants - average quality falls, august businesses are destroyed - but this also happened with the spread of printing. The question isn't whether we want a medium that lets everyone produce content; we've got it. The question now is how we use it." Clay Shirky


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