FT trying to teach an old dog new tricks

Old habits die hard and everyone knows it is pretty impossible to teach an old dog new tricks.

But the FT isn't past trying.

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber predicts that within a year most news sites will be charging for content. He's bedded in with Rupert Murdoch in their stance against 'free' and they are both (now) very outspoken that the free online newspaper content model is broken.

The trouble is, there is a world of difference between being annoyed at a business model you yourself had a hand in setting up, when you find it doesn't work, and changing that model when you've already trained your audience to expect something else.

Freesheets are marked by crappy, poorly researched journalism and they're, on the whole, bad for the media scene. If you want proper intelligent journalism you should need to pay a small fee and enable the journalists to eat. I get that side of the argument, I do, and I often make it myself. I also get the 'give bits away for free and then charge for heavy usage' model that the FT claims to have invented. Although I read lots of stories on the FT's website and never seem to have to pay.

And so the fact remains that only 1 per cent of users actually go on to pay for journalistic content. If the newspaper industry is serious about this battle against 'free,' they need to make that 1 per cent their worst enemy and do something very clever indeed to increase it. With the (very free) blogosphere breaking every major news story, the (very free) Google enabling access to news stories at the touch of a mouse, the (very free) digital media sector enabling news at a glance and making it possible to read nothing beyond headlines for your daily news diet, and kids in our societies being brought up on a diet of free, this is not a job I'd want to handle.

Furthermore, dare I say it, but in countries like the UK with socialised media (the Beeb's online news site) giving great content away for free to the taxpayer, and probably rightly so, it's never going to work. In the US, I think there is more of a fighting chance with independent regional papers leading the newspaper scene.

And at the end of the day, no one feels that bad for Murdoch or the big papers at the loss of their profit margins. But everyone mourns the loss of their local paper and the horrible impact that has on unwatched politicians free to play with information at their choosing, unmanned regulators and all the implications of the loss of an investigative press. It's the small, local papers that suffer and we suffer with them. And the primary reason for their downfall is not free content being available online, but the free classified advertising marketplace the internet creates.

What do you think?


  1. In the end it comes down to value. Will/do media publishers have something worth paying for? Generally the answer is no because, as you state, the plurality and democratisation of media means that everyone has the same story. You can't charge, because people can go elsewhere. The FT has therefore been dependent on 'quality' which is great and should be upheld, but is it enough to justify paying for? Is the value great enough?

  2. Two things underpin this argument and you have already mentioned one.

    Firstly the BBC, it's not quite "free" content to taxpayers. We do pay a licence fee after all. That said, it is available free outside the UK with additional advertisements. So I guess you could say it is free. With the BBC in place, why would we pay to go elsewhere? Despite it's arguable drop in standards in recent times as it attempts to repackage and regurgitate information spread too thinly across too many of it's outlets - it's still pretty good.

    The second factor can almost be likened to open source software. If one set of organisations decides to charge for new information, then there will always be the mavericks out there who want to make that information available for free. Social networking with further fuel this as a channel for information share.

    Great post though - thank you for this.


  3. It is funny, how these things go from one extreme to another one. A couple of years ago advertising was the answer to all, how to monetize, questions. Now it seems to be that advertising is not at all the correct answer but you must talk, how to get users to pay. I would say most of newspaper or news sites cannot get people to pay. There are exceptions, some people pay for FT.com (including myself). I believe much more in combinations of free things and premium services. We must also remember that a lot of media (outside internet) is free for users.

    The latest Wired (UK) has intresting contrast for this, an interview of the CEO of News Corp (Murdoch) and Google (Schmidt).

  4. I can't see the paid-for model working apart from niche areas where the content is unique - or at least seen as valuable. General news content can be gained for free for a variety of sources, so as long as someone gives it away, others won't be able to charge. Media habits are changing anyway - do we really need national newspapers at all?

  5. Great comments, thanks. It does seem to come down to value. How the FT and other papers will deliver real value in the face of so much news competetion is an interesting question. I am not convinced. At least when you buy a paper you can feel it in your hands; when you buy online content you just get to read it online, like so much that is free.

    A quick comment to Adrian: can't you still look at the Beeb's online content even if you don't pay for a TV license?