In discussion with Channel 4 news, Financial Times editor Lionel Barber suggested that online news sources ought to start charging for their services rather than simply doling them out for free.
The core of his argument appears to be well summarised in this single statement: “We thought that as news organisations we could put our material out on aggregators like Google, attract a big audience and sell advertising on the back of it. In fact what we should have said is: ‘No, information actually has a price – it’s valuable and therefore we should charge for it.”
The issue he suggests isn’t about whether or not the online news sources are profitable, but that they have an inherent right to charge for their services. For an industry that is slowly crumbling, would making users pay for the privilege of using their sites really help? I very much doubt it.
Imagine a scenario where the Telegraph, Mail and Guardian all start charging for their news. Would most users, bearing in mind these are the most popular three online newspapers, stump up the cash or simply move to where they can get the same news, but for free?
The argument, from my point of view, seems as outdated as that represented by the major music labels complaining about music file sharing. The Internet is a free resource, some have abused this and have rightly been punished; however, offline industries need to stop fighting the movement online and start investing time in working out how to monetise in new ways.
This week Joel Tenenbaum was fined $675,000 for sharing music during his university days. That’s $22,500 per song that he was alleged to have downloaded and/or distributed. Evidently a 25 year old is going to struggle to pay that amount of money, leading to insolvency and ensuring the record companies achieve little more than further criticism and public dismay. If news was to become a resource that has a value, would we face the same restrictions about sharing stories? Or would users simply turn to blogs and other avenues to keep up to date with the latest breaking stories?
The world has moved on. People still enjoy reading the weekend newspapers at home, putting on the television in the evening and hearing the latest news on the radio; but the Internet is a completely different entity. Media is now social, therefore one news story breaks and the world knows in minutes. The rise of blogs and the proliferation of Internet news sources has surely made it impossible for blanket subscription fees to news services.
Whilst Barber makes a point that this should have been made some time ago, his assertion that this can be reversed is surely flawed. The Financial Times has a niche, therefore making it more viable to demand money for premium services, but as for the rest? Well, I have a feeling that it is now far too late and any moves towards it now could prove to be a massive gamble.
What do you think? Should online users be made to pay like everybody else? Is it time for newspapers to look for new ways to monetise? Is Barber right that a scheme set up today that would charge visitors for news would work? Alternatively, would this just be another nail in the printed press’ coffin?