THE BLOG

Paywalls or Free News: Who Will Win?

13/07/2015 11:01 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

The latest edition of the BBC radio programme The Bottom Line was focused on the newspaper business and how it is adapting to the digital society. I really like this show. The presenter Evan Davis always gives the three invited guests a good grilling - in this case leaders from the Financial Times, Guardian, and Johnston Press.

But this time it seemed like the central point of the debate was skipped over or skirted around. Surely the biggest question for newspapers today is is how they get people to pay for content when the public has come to expect that their online news will be free.

In the case of The Guardian and FT, the key strategy has been to globalise. The FT has worked hard to become a trusted source of global business news. Likewise, The Guardian has been successful in taking their left-of-centre liberal brand global, becoming a popular source of liberal news across the English-speaking world - thanks in part to the Edward Snowden scoop. Johnston Press is doing nicely with a mix of local newspapers, local online news, and helping local companies exploit online marketing opportunities - moving the boundaries of journalism so they also become advisers to their advertisers.

But what about the paywalls? This was touched on in the BBC programme, but no ideas were forthcoming on the question of whether paywalls on news sites can survive or how content providers can afford to keep on publishing news without charging. Why not?

The problem is that news has also changed. It has started blending with entertainment. The rise of the awful troll Katie Hopkins shows that some people can build a career out of being abusive to the poor and defenceless. The more outrageous, the better, because when news stories report that X-said-Y-to-Z they get more clicks if the quotes are outrageous.

The 'blogosphere', as some still call it, has become a feeder channel into the traditional news outlets. How many stories have you seen recently in established media outlets - print or broadcast - that are basically a story about a piece of content a member of the public has uploaded?

Car crashes on YouTube, lucky escapes, celebrities photographed shopping in the supermarket, all of these examples of citizen journalism commonly cross over to the regular journals. The traditional journals and even broadcast news shows now trawl the blogs looking for interesting content to share on their own outlets.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the Daily Mail website. This traditional British newspaper created an online presence that bears almost no resemblance to their paper edition. The online version is filled with banal celebrity 'news' that should really be of no interest to anyone. A recent look at the Daily Mail told me that actor Jonah Hill has put on some weight recently, Kourtney Kardashian walked past a convenience store on the way to meet her sister, and singer Rihanna may or may not be pregnant. True news indeed as Russell Brand might say.

This celebrity trash and the photographs of celebrities snapped by the public should not really be news, but all of this does generate clicks. People click on the stories to read all this gossip and with 190 million unique readers each month, who could argue that the Daily Mail is wrong?

We exist in an undefined media universe at present. Print journals were historically financed by a cover price and advertising. Broadcast news was paid for by advertising - or by some form of tax, such as a license fee. With blogs and online news there remains ongoing confusion about how it will all be paid for.

The two opposing schools of thought can be best summarized as the free-for-all model, with the Daily Mail as a good example. By giving away all their news for free, the Daily Mail encourages more sharing and more readers and therefore can charge advertisers a commensurate rate to reach that large audience.

Others in the industry, such as News International boss Rupert Murdoch, are attempting to enforce paid access to their news through the use of paywalls - restrictions on access to their new sites without a subscription.

I don't believe that either side will win this argument. I fully expect one of the technology industry giants such as Google or Facebook to create an open micro-payment mechanism where I can pay for the media I consume on a per-story basis.

The Blendle app does this already in the Netherlands, but to go completely global it will require an enormous existing network - probably only Facebook or Google at present - and the ability to incorporate a reliable payment system.

On the positive side of this argument is that any media publisher will find that they can get paid on a per-story basis if they are prepared to use a social network as the gateway to their information. The negative side is pretty much the same thing. Why would a media publisher want to be at the mercy of Facebook?

But this is already happening - to a degree. Major international publishers including the New York Times, BBC, and The Guardian, agreed to let Facebook host their news last May. Isn't this just a step away from allowing Facebook to charge by the story?

If media companies all over the world take this step then it could mean the end of trusted news from reliable sources being free. However, it would also mean that all those journals now hidden behind paywalls would be accessible again. I would like to look at The Times now and then, but not often enough to buy a subscription.

Maybe if I could pay via Facebook I'd be a Times reader once again?

A portion of this blog was extracted from Chapter 2 ('How News is Created') of my book 'Customer Engagement Officer (CEO): Content Marketing and the Realities of Executive Blogging.'