Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Murdoch digs in for final web battle

Yesterday’s details which emerged about the introduction of paywalls for The Times and Sunday Times (£1 per day for The Times and £2 per day for the Sunday Times) in effect leaves two armed camps dug in facing each other ready for the final titanic battle.

On our left we have the “if it is on the net, it has to be free” brigade who regard paywalls as an intrusion and believe the current newspaper business model is defunct. On our right is the “internet news is theft” brigade who claim that the web is destroying journalism and we have all got to get used to paying for content.

What is certain is that the News International strategy is high risk. I had been expecting some sort of limited paywall to be introduced, perhaps ring-fencing higher value areas of the publication, such as the comment section, but instead they have gone the whole hog and are looking to erect a paywall around the whole of both sites.

The million dollar question is: who will win? Whilst I am loathe to bet against Murdoch I feel he is acting like King Canute here in trying to hold back the inevitable tide. I don’t think that online will completely replace print, at least in the medium term, but I suspect the relationship will have to undergo profound change.

What will that change look like? It's anybody's guess but going forward online, with its continuous updates, will probably become the main driver of publications rather than just a digital version of the hard copy. I would expect the best and least time sensitive writing to be then included in a weekly print version with a much smaller print run. This time delay will make valuable comment and analysis much more important, with hard breaking 'news' likely to become a commodity product, available from multiple sources like the BBC, Reuters and Dow Jones.

In short, the value will not be in telling me what the Prime Minister has said, but will be in telling me what the implications are of his words. The best journalists may well become 'must read' brands of their own, possibly using their online comments as loss leaders to generate a following in order to sell books to their audiences, which is what already happens on sites such as The Huffington Post.

This is nothing if not a radical departure, both for the newspaper industry and journalist working practices, and you can see why News International is digging in for a battle. My fear for them is that the war is already lost.

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