There were a couple of big announcements from UK national newspapers last week, both very much expected, and both sending strong signals about the future of newspapers in the UK.
At the end of the week, News Corporation announced that its long-awaited paywall would be raised around The Times and The Sunday Times in June. This followed confirmation earlier in the week of the purchase of The Independent by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev for a sum equal to the paper’s coverprice – a move that many think will be followed by the abolition of that coverprice altogether.
When considering newspaper economics, a useful definition has been provided by CEO of subscription content play Subhub, Evan Rudowski:
The paid content opportunity is greatest if the content is unique, actionable, targeted at a relevant niche, frequently updated and from a credible or trusted source
This definition certainly works for the FT and Wall Street Journal, which, with their market insight, data-as-news and locked-in corporate audiences, are clear leaders in paid-for online models. Yet while News International can insist on being “proud of our journalism and unashamed to say we believe it has value”, such models seem at first sight to make less sense for a general interest title like The Times.
Only the brave bet against Murdoch, particularly when one considers the potential for bundling newspapers with other elements of the NewsCorp empire and the financial cushion available for similar experimentation. Still, it seems clear that, at the very least, the paywall approach will change both the size and the nature of the papers’ audience.
Sometimes the definition of general interest needs stretching in order to apply it to The Independent. Its content has for a number of years appeared distinctive, even idiosyncratic – think of those issue-led front pages that so defined the paper a year or so ago.
In several respects The Independent is a better fit for Rudowski’s model than The Times. It’s commonly said, though, in discussing public willingness to pay for news (or otherwise), that while the man or woman in the street might pay to find out what’s happening on that street, they won’t subsidise the Baghdad Bureau. And therein lies one of the Indie’s major problems – sometimes it seems like it’s all Baghdad Bureau.
Not only does the paper’s content suggest a struggle to monetise online, it also raises questions about advertising-only support for such editorial in the print addition – and what that, in turn, might mean for the readership.
What’s plain is that, in the words of one recent advertising campaign, we can’t go on like this. Even the Guardian, perhaps the most entrenched opponent of paid-for online content, is developing charging models, albeit at the moment centred on mobile applications. It will surely look to expand these, if not through charging for content per se, then by creating new applications, new functionality, to serve its well-defined stakeholder base.
As the channels evolve, those that are successful will see their audience will evolve with them. At the same time, the demands of this evolution mean that not all will survive. Consolidation seems inevitable, and is indeed already underway, throughout the UK newspaper landscape. But communicators need to watch carefully – it’s not just the titles changing, but also their audiences.