Suffer app attack and be another prick in the paywall

Despondent correspondent NORMAN GILLER still cannot work out how Murdoch’s online paywall will manage to generate enough cash to pay for sports journalists to cover all the major international events in 2010 and beyond

What d’you think of 2010 so far? Down here in dozy, delightful Dorset I am frozen right down to the nether regions and it is not just the snowy weather that is making me shiver. I am shaking over what is to become of our newspaper industry. I have been gathering whispered information from my various moles in the News International empire, and it does not fill me with the warmth of optimism.

Murdoch’s minions are, it seems, hell bent on going through with the paywall concept, designed to turn their publishing businesses into profitable operations, as traditional newspapers continue their slow, painful decline.

This correspondent is sorry to be so despondent as we complete the first week of a New Year that offers wonderful international sporting action. I am afraid that for we sporting scribblers and smudgers, the long-term outlook is mid-winter bleak.

In future years, from where will the budgets come for blanket coverage of World Cups, Olympics and major overseas sporting action? Is internet income going to be sufficient to finance the travel and subsistence of squads of reporters? I cannot see it. The future is bright only for self-propelled — no doubt back-packing — freelancers (but too late for an old git like me).

In the interests of neutrality, I sought the opinions of the hundreds of Facebook friends that I have managed to attract with my Uriah Heep-style patronising. I asked them simply: “Would you be willing to pay to read the online thoughts of News International writers such as Jeremy Clarkson, Simon Barnes and Rod Liddle?”

To a man (and woman) the answer came back loud and clear: “No way”. Some of the negative comments were too rude to repeat even on this open-minded SJA site.

World Wide Web surfers will (reluctantly) pay for special interest sites, music, porn and outlets that provide entertainment and enlightenment. Most of them will not pay for news and comment. They feel they can get this free elsewhere.

How will Murdoch stop them? He cannot gag every news channel. I just don’t understand how you can copyright news. The moment somebody reports, for example, that MP Joe Bloggs has spent taxpayers’ money building a moat it becomes public property. All Murdoch’s newspapers lifted and reported the Telegraph scoops because they were factual.

An opinion can be exclusive, but not a fact. It is sad for the trained journalist who has dug it out, but once the news story is published, it is out there to be shared. If, for instance, The Sun have a scoop that Liverpool are going to drop Steven Gerrard, there is nothing to stop a subscriber reading it and then commenting within seconds on a forum on another website. It will whoosh around the web at lightning speed and be Tweeted and txted, rarely with credit to the original reporter or source.

I understand that Roop’s Troops are continuing their talks with Microsoft on how to use Bing to take over from Google as the search engine that will promote News Group’s subscription services. That is going to take some huge marketing to get the public to accept Bing as their explorer rather than the well-established Google. Hands up who uses Bing? As I thought, very few of you. Me? I much prefer Sinatra.

Of course, there are going to be some people willing to pay to read the newspapers on line, particularly with the goodies News International will be offering to seduce them into subscribing. But I am firmly in the camp that believes there will not be sufficient take-up to generate the sort of money needed to bankroll the entire publishing machine. Certainly not the publishing operations as big as they have at present at The Sun, Times, Sunday Times and News of the World.

After all, with my son and right-hand, Michael, I can produce a full website inside 48 hours. If a dinosaur like me can create a website, the young IT masters out there could do it with their left hand. How many people do you think are bringing this excellent SJA website to you? Take a bow, Steven Downes…

So it will all probably mean that there will be more jobs cut rather than created. The past couple of years have seen the disappearance of many of the specialist website-only jobs at the four titles, with newspaper and internet staffs being “integrated”. Unfortunately for the interests of quality journalism, the fear must be now that the bean counters will overlook the need for reporters to generate unique content – what we used to call “exclusives” – and consider that all their websites can be administered by a handful of staff, loading stories taken from the wires, other websites or from watching TV.

Like it or lump it, the internet has bred an animal that expects to feed for free. For example, there was recently loose gossip that Facebook might charge for membership. Immediately a petition was set up asking for UK Facebookers to back a “We Will Not Pay To Use Facebook — We Are Gone If This Happens” group. As of today, the support measures 5,406,798 members, and I am happy to be one of them. No newspaper group in the world has that sort of muscle.

Rupert Murdoch, surprise, surprise, abhors this something-for-nothing culture. Yet his companies were among those responsible for getting online consumers used to the idea of free material, giving away their newspapers’ content for nothing and even removing (free) registration requirements from some of his sites, as they chased ever-rising user numbers to help attract and satisfy online advertisers.

The snag with that came when the worst ever recession in the advertising industry hit and that source of income dried up. As well as journalist job cuts at Wapping, the advertising departments have also seen blood on the carpets (which hardly leaves them equipped for selling ads when the market begins to recover).

Of course, the biggest fly in Rupert’s paywall ointment is the BBC and its collection of wonderful online offerings, all provided free thanks to the licence fee. Even if you don’t factor-in his commercial interests with BSkyB television, it’s no wonder Murdoch’s newspapers’ editorial policy is so anti-Auntie.

In truth, the free-for-all habit was started from day one when Sir Tim Berners-Lee astonishingly gave away his worldwide web baby for nothing. He was a near neighbour of mine here in Dorset at the time of the launch, circa 1989.

Why oh why didn’t I have the sense to say to him: “Look, Timmy, you don’t need to be greedy. Just charge a penny or a cent per page, and I’ll accept a mere 10 per cent of all income for my heartfelt advice”? By now, that would have been 10 per cent of several trillion pennies, and I would have been filing this from Monte Carlo.

Now, Murdoch’s titles face another dilemma over advertisers, who are debating whether they should support the News Group operation on a grand scale if their ads are going to get fewer hits behind paywalls, without the help of Google driving eyeballs towards their ads.

Thousands of news organisations worldwide will be watching the News Group plan with some trepidation. They are clients of Journalism Online, a pioneering outfit geared to start collecting fees if it is proved there is a market out there; a sort of PayPal exclusive to newspaper publishers.

And in the week when Google launched its own smartphone, the Nexus One, yet another new media revenue stream is opening up, thanks to the innovation of the Apple iPhone. iPhone Applications, or “apps”, like programs on your laptop, allow the phone user to perform various functions, play games or receive information. Some apps are free, others are charged for.

Notably it is The Guardian, and not a NI title, that is a frontrunner on this new information highway. The Guardian app, released last month, provides instant access to its excellent website, all for a download fee of less than £3. The innovation has been well received, and the sales spiel surrounding it suggests that the download fee is a one-off charge.

So watch out for a new buzzword in 2010: freemium. This is the alternative to block-all paywalls, with publishers offering their online news (and much of their sports coverage) for free, but with fees charged for “premium content”, such as opinion columns and other feature material – in NI’s case, this is likely to be things like The Times crossword or The Sun‘s Page 3, or exclusive video content from Sky across all the newspaper sites.

This is one area where smartphone apps could be very important to publishers. Consider what if, somewhere down the line, after the world’s iPhone users have got into the habit of turning to the Grauniad for their daily news updates and podcasts, that the forward-thinking management in Kings Cross start to charge for certain premium elements of their content? Might they have just created a captive market?

As I write, nothing is yet set in stone in the Murdoch empire, where one of my moles tells me that plans are said to be “on pause”.

The two main men in the UK dancing to the Murdoch tune — but trying to introduce their own time signature — are Times Media’s digital development head Hector Arthur and News International’s strategy and product development director Dominic Young.

Arthur has declared publicly that The Times must meet the “commercial necessity” to innovate before erecting the paywall.

The free versus fees debate will rage throughout the current big freeze. The outcome of the battle will affect every newspaper and every journalist in the land. Happy 2010!

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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