The notion that News Corp’s proposed paywall "won’t work" is in danger of becoming common sense. The problem with this is that, on the contrary, I can see how it might well work. I’m not saying that it necessarily will, or that it’s the best move for them to make. But they do have the track record, the content library and the market power to give it a serious shake.
Some of the people in the "information wants to be free" crowd, who say News can’t do it, make some unwarranted assumptions.
First, they assume that News will only enclose the newpaper content that it currently gives away, and that they will enclose all of it.
Second, they assume that there will always be a free equivalent to anything that News puts behind the wall, meaning that people won’t have any reason to pay for it.
Third, some seem to think that just because they don’t like something, that means there’s no market for it.
Fourth, they assume that no News journalists have skills, expertise or access that might be worth paying for.
And last, there seems to be a belief in some quarters that News Corporation is largely staffed by idiots.
I don’t think any of that is necessarily true, and if News Corp has any sense, it’ll draw on its corporate experience with pay television to leverage audiences and money using niche content of various kinds.
Take my old mate, Bolta. As the owners of Fox News, News Corp knows that celebrity blowhards are in themselves a powerful category of niche content. They can be converted into audiences and cash. If it were me designing this, I wouldn’t move all of Bolt’s content inside the wall. I’d leave the blog as a freebie, letting him stay in the blogosphere fray and allowing it and his mainstream media appearances to act as a promo for new forms of value-added content. This might include video monologues or interviews, podcasts, or even some form of interactive, subscriber-only talkback or chat facility. Whether we like it or not, Bolta is a celebrity with fans who may be prepared to pay for more varied multimedia content. They might also be prepared to think about a package with more of the same from Albrechtsen, Blair etc. Charismatic "stars" like these are unique by definition, they’re exclusive to News, and the sad-sacks of the independent hard-right blogosphere don’t amount to a substitute.
Another huge asset that News has successfully deployed in the past is sport. As Dave Gaukroger pointed out the other day, the Tele and the Herald Sun are still the leaders in sports coverage in their markets and that coverage is enhanced by News’s unique advantages, like owning half of the NRL. Sure that doesn’t by itself make all the difference. Although I’m a rugby league fan, and I think that the Tele‘s sports journos do a great job, I don’t think I’d pay for what’s currently on offer at the Tele‘s site, news.com.au or foxsports.com.au. But what if they put a very basic coverage outside the wall, and used their advantages to provide something unique for subscribers? If there were on-demand or streaming games including lower-grade matches, exclusive interviews with or commentary from current coaches and players, comprehensive statistics, online versions of Fox Sports NRL commentary, in-depth analysis and maybe extras like liveblogging coverage of games, they might even get $30 a month out of me.
And what if that included intensive coverage of other sports, including a comprehensive form guide and expert tips for punters? What if they then proposed, à la Foxtel pick-and-mix bundles, that for another ten bucks a month, I could choose between political news and commentary, business news, or arts coverage and restaurant reviews from across the stable, including foreign publications? What if I could bundle it all with a Foxtel subscription? What if I could also get a range of mobile content? If it were offered on these terms, surely I wouldn’t be the only person in Australia who was tempted. Again, it’s worth noting that News could leverage existing advantages for a form of content for which there is no free equivalent elsewhere.
If I were to sign up, knowing what they know about me, they would be able to target ads far more effectively than they can at random web users. Perhaps advertisers would be prepared to pay more for online advertising directed at consumers with some known preferences and a demographic shape who are actually prepared to stump up for news. Maybe.
They’re just two examples of how I imagine niche news content could work, and if people are prepared to pay for them, it’s also possible that if you offer slightly less desirable content at a marginal cost they’ll take it. Essentially, what I’m proposing is that it’s possible that the "post-broadcast" pay TV model could be applied to news. If anyone has the array of content and the market power to make it work, it’s News Corp. They know as well as anyone that in contemporary media, the tide is running in the direction of multi-channeling, niche audiences and content that’s made for (and increasingly by) reasonably discrete fan communities. In this environment, as some have pointed out, political news is just another niche, and perhaps not the biggest one. The newspaper, perhaps, is too inefficient and poorly targeted a content bundle. It may be that you can sell news to people who aren’t political junkies by attaching it to other things but you may need to play to their enthusiasms first.
Some commentators on News’s proposals seem blinkered by beliefs about what the internet ought to be like. As a few writers have remarked, there is an orthodoxy that holds that the internet is a necessarily democratising technology, or a privileged environment of freedom. Walls may violate that orthodoxy but it doesn’t mean that they won’t work.
Among critics of the News paywall notion there are also strong beliefs about how news ought to be made and delivered, and occasionally a strong antipathy to News Corp. But again, that doesn’t mean they can’t do it. I might even share some of these beliefs, but not to the extent that I’d write the paywall proposal off before seeing how it’s presented, what the model is, and the extent to which they’ll allow people to customise their news diet.
This whole issue becomes clearer when you stop thinking about News’s objective as the creation of a bunch of paywalled newspapers but rather as a proposal to move to a more sophisticated pay-per-view regime for online content. I think News have enough unique material, corporate experience, and celebrity "talent" to possibly pull something off. The first question is whether they can afford the time and money needed to make a niche-driven news business model work. The second is that, if they do, what will happen to existing beliefs about the nature of internet content?