The Murdoch Paywall

The Murdoch Paywall will probably survive: it has to. But it needs to be more porous if it is to thrive.

Rupert Murdoch is one of the true forces for evil on this planet, with his control of Fox in the US, Star in China and the Sun and BSkyB in the UK.  Not to mention the Times stable. When a single corporation controls so much media, and exercises very limited editorial restraint, free speech suffers. And, not to put too fine a point on it,  I think that the reactionary politics his networks push are abhorrent.

But in this case, he is right. Content on the network must pay for itself, and neither the advertising-only or free models are really good enough. The “free” model, in particular, whilst appealing, essentially means that all contributors must be amateurs.  Most bloggers are.  They keep the day job. Many are also constrained by their employment; being employed, they cannot be independent despite being, as a consequence of their employment, the most qualified person to comment.

Recently, I’ve read, lawfully free online, a lot of very good Times content: most of what Danny Finkelstein writes is great, and Caitlin Moran’s interview with Lady Gaga was a sensational piece of pop journalism.  If it weren’t for the fact that I have vowed never to drop another  brass farthing  into the Murdoch Maw, I might even be tempted to subscribe.  But I suspect that most people, like me, will simply not bother. We’ll stop following Times writers if the links in their Tweets lead only to the gatehouse in the paywall.

And Times writers will notice this fall in their followers – so they’ll start clamouring to be able to put their key articles outside the paywall, which the publishing team will oppose. A likely compromise is that star writers like Danny Finkelstein will be allowed – probably encouraged  – to keep a separate blog on the outside, which they promote with Twitter. The Times might even  develop a unified branding and style template for its writers’ blogs, which would essentially be teasers for the more considered material inside the wall.  There is probably scope for revisiting the terms and conditions under which they write, monitoring how many casual readers each writer converts into a subscriber and paying them  a commission on top of their usual fee.  Probably, News International people have already been thinking about all of this.

I’m sure that the most aggressive pricing will be at the annual level. It simply doesn’t make sense to process lots of £1 or £2 transactions: Murdoch will really want subscribers, and I suspect he’ll need to offer more than quality content to keep them.  One perk he could offer is greater visibility – so, for example, a  subscriber gets to comment on the blogs outside the paywall, or gets their Tweets echoed to a Times timeline. But media owners have moved on from the walled-garden approach to content.  Few of us will be willing to read only Times content; we browse with multiple tabs open from many different sites. If there’s enough good content on Times sites people and corporates will pay a fair price for a roaming free pass across the paywall, and we will no doubt have several for the different sites we use.

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