A battle for readers and advertisers is developing that will have profound consequences. News International is retreating from the ‘free to consumer news’ business model and is canvassing other publishers to follow their lead. Is this the last gasp of a news delivery system that has had its day?
The News International retreat is signalled by two events, the closure of the thelondonpaper (a free evening newspaper aimed at young London commuters) and the announcement that web content of the Sun, Times and Sunday Times will no longer be free from next year. Rupert Murdock argues (quite rightly) that good journalism is costly. With advertising revenues crumbling, it is understandable that publishers want to bolster revenue. Justification for the ‘paid for’ news model comes from the success of on-line content from the likes of The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.
Just as this happens the (London) Evening Standard has announced that it is to become a free paper, and double its print run to around 600,000. Their business argument is that the larger circulation will pull more advertising revenue and so more than offset the loss of the cover price.
I suspect that the transfer from free to paid will fail. The first reason is that to obtain a fee for news, the content has to be genuinely of value to readers. The on-line FT does have information that has real-time commercial, but is this true of The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun?
The second reason is that there is a younger news audience out there who have never paid for news – either in print or on-line. If they cannot get this from News International they are savvy enough to find other free outlets to fill the gap.
Also there are many competent bloggers out there. Even Twitter has the potential to link people to key events, break stories and spread comment. There are already aggregators who are able to gather content and create new, virtual, interactive, rolling news channels that may take over the role of traditional media. Many established journalists are establishing themselves in these news outlets too and feeding them.
What does this mean for the PR industry? I believe, very little. Our role has always been to produce publishable content. On behalf of our clients we can use the same technologies to talk direct to their audiences and create inclusive conversations with them. Better still we can gain more immediate and better feedback. This is the other screw that this turning on traditional media which is trimming editorial staff, pages and budgets.
So is free news dead? Not any time soon – but there will be a split in content. Where media owners believe they can legally ring-fence the value of content, they will do and make a charge for it. However, this will prove near impossible for most general news where reporting is no longer the sole preserve of the large media owners or news agencies.