My first trip to the Frontline Club last night (thanks, @saradotdub) was rewarded with a lively and contentious debate on the future of newspapers featuring The Times digital director, Gurtej Sandhu, enduring a severe cross-examination on Murdoch’s paywall strategy. It came from all sides: the Chair (the subtle and persistent Steve Hewlett) fellow panel members and the floor.
My takeaway was that the discussion highlighted three fallacies that still govern much newspaper thinking.
Fallacy Number One is that the internet is free because of a mix of habit and a spurious moral right, and that if you can change habits and challenge morality we’ll go back to paying for content.
This is confusing newspapers with content. We used to pay for newspapers because they had a monopoly of the means of production, and to get the content we had to pay for paper, printworkers, printing machines and trucks. The internet reduces the cost of material production and distribution to virtually nil and reveals that whatever we used to pay for content was a fraction of the total newstand price, and we paid for that because we couldn’t get it elsewhere, which brings us to…
Fallacy Number Two: that a newspaper’s competition is other newspapers.
Panel member Doublas McCabe suggested that if every newspaper went behind a paywall we might start to pay again. This misses the point that we can now get the news from a myriad sources, not just ‘newspapers’: specialist blogs, tv websites, Google, twitter, etc. ad infinitum. The monopoly no longer exists and everybody can be a media owner (picture me waving my iphone in the air) and for this reason alone content is worth much less than it used to be – sometimes actually nothing – unless it occupies a privileged niche, as does the Financial Times (represented last night by product manager Marybeth Christie with a lively account of experimentation and research in different ways of paying and consuming).
Fallacy Number Three is that nothing else changes, content is still just the end product of the publishing process.
Steve Hewlett made the point that, even when we paid for newspapers, our secondary consumption (eg. in a library archive) and conversation was free. It was, and its a good point, but the network in which that conversation occured was comparatively stunted – just people we knew. Now the network of secondary consumption and conversation is gigantic and accounts for much of the value created by content in terms of comment, correction, re-use and aggregation. The relationship between journalist and audience has changed from one that’s indirect and mediated by truck and newsagent to one that’s direct and continuous, a service relationship with two-way interactions where publication is often the beginning rather than the end of content production.
The internet creates the potential to make a fundamental change in journalistic practice and enables publishers to shift from product to service, whereby content is the means of introducing other sources of value such as real world products, information or services. This means, simply, that advertising and subscription are no longer the only revenue sources and might become secondary. This is Murdoch’s error, not realising that a newspaper isn’t a newspaper any more.
When asked why the New York Times tried a paywall and went back to free, Gurtej Sandhu said they blinked. We wonder if The Times will be blinking, sometime in the next six months or so, when it sees the light.
Stop press: you can watch/read about the full debate here: