The missing link in paywall plans

In their push to adopt paywalls it looks like the media companies may have overlooked a key opportunity to discuss what kind of content is actually worth paying for.

Australia is in a unique position when it comes to the media paywall debate. We’re not having one.

Overseas, a rather turbulent discussion still rages as to whether charging readers for access to content will help media companies buffer their shrinking advertising revenues. 

Here, any argument has given way to an acceptance that at some point consumers are going to have to pay. Perhaps this implicit belief reflects the current state of affairs in Australia, where two incumbents dominate the news cycle and the media industry. 

Fairfax and News Ltd (the publisher of this site) have both made their intentions clear. By the end of the year, both companies will adopt a New York Times inspired metered paywall across their network of news sites. 

There's no turning back and until their strategy is fully implemented there’s no point in arguing whether paywalls are a good or bad idea. 

However, in moving to adopt paywalls it seems that we have overlooked the opportunity to discuss what kind of content is actually worth paying for. To ask: What does the Australian public actually want from its media in the digital age?

It’s a question that could prove pivotal to the future of Fairfax and News Limited and the success of their respective paywall strategies. After all, there are plenty of free news sites and ‘professional’ blogs that readers can turn to if they don’t feel they're getting any value out of the sites kept under lock and key.

Last year both companies stressed the point that  “quality content” and “excellent reporting” warrant payment. But what does that actually mean? Particularly in an era where less journalists are expected to produce more news.

Will people only pay for certain stories, topics or particular journalists? Do they even see value in the autoplay videos resting on top of their stories? And perhaps most importantly, what will make readers pull out the credit card and ask for more when their free trial runs dry?

Technology Spectator put these questions to both News Ltd and Fairfax, and despite it being a rather touchy topic for the industry, they replied. You can read their full, unedited email responses here.

But, to delve further into the issue, we put the same set of questions to Crikey.com, one of Australia’s veteran subscription-operated websites. Crikey has around 16,000 paying subscribers (each at least chipping in at least $174 per year) so it has a bit of weight when it comes to talking about what people will pay for online.

Here are a couple of points of interest from what they all had to say.

Split on multimedia

While many a reporter is probably working overtime to produce both written and multimedia content for consumers, Australia’s major players are split as to whether it's actually a worthwhile endeavour.

It’s a surprising response, given that all three companies are investing time and resources into producing this content, whether it be through online videos or podcasts.

For News Ltd’s group editorial director Campbell Reid, videos and the like are deployed because “consumers expect multimedia content”.

“Whether or not that content would influence their purchase decision depends on how good the content is,” he says.

Reid contends that if you can offer readers exclusive video interviews, or content then it would serve as an incentive to drive subscriptions. But it ultimately boils down to the content being offered rather than the medium its being offered in, he says.

“It’s worth remembering that there are plenty of online text-only publications that are signing up subscribers and thriving, because their content is valued by its audience.”

Talking about text-focused publications, Crikey’s website editor Luke Buckmaster said idea that multimedia content drives traffic is “embryonic at best”.

“There just isn't the data or the trends available to really go into supporting an argument for or against,” he says.

“We know that things like Pay TV works, we know that video on demand works, but its at a very early stage in terms of the evolution of the news business model. It’s just way too early to call it.”

Perhaps Fairfax agrees, as its metro division’s Strategy Director Gautam Mishra said that neither its videos nor its photo galleries will be counted as part of its metered paywall.

Though, he adds that such items are popular and will better serve the company better in driving traffic for advertising purposes.

It’s not about high-profile writers, it's about content

There’s no doubt that both News Ltd and Fairfax intend to capitalise on the stable of high profile writers. For instance, Andrew Bolt was one of the first writers to go behind the Herald Sun’s paywall when it came into existence last year.

The assumption is, that only those who have already earned their stripes in the media will survive the transition behind a paywall. Consumer’s won’t pay for names they don’t recognise.

Yet despite this claim, all three companies rejected the idea.

Fairfax’s Mishra went as far as to say that it proved both and unpopular to include some journalists in its metered paywall and exempt others.

While News’ Reid agreed that veteran journalists will draw interest he said that: “any journalist who writes content that readers want to read, will do well”.

Crikey’s Buckmaster took a similar line. Even the occasional Crikey intern has their work locked up behind the site’s paywall.

Talking about one of his website’s heavy hitters, political writer Bernard Keane, Buckmaster elaborated that its a viable strategy to sometimes leave the big names outside of the paywall.

“We’d like to remind people that don’t subscribe to Crikey, that he’s [Keane’s] out there. And remind them of some of the quality that’s available if you pay for a subscription.”

Quality control?

Another concern lies around the influx of wire copy and what has been nicknamed by the industry as ‘churnalism’ - the mass production of news content that’s only based off a press release or statement.

It may be helpful for filling pages and getting a publication on news aggregators like Google, but will consumers actually pay for for regurgitated press releases or information that’s widely available across the net?

For Crikey’s Buckmaster, the answer is a clear no.

“People are prepared to pay for content, if its quality content and they can’t find it on any number of sites,” he says. 

“What they're less willing to pay for, is run of the mill, reporting style journalism that’s a dime a dozen. We try and gravitate away from that, into more longer-form and thoughtful pieces.”

For both News and Fairfax, the answer seems to be the contrary. Fairfax has confirmed that all content - including wires - will be counted as part of its meter. Meanwhile News’ Reid says that in the right context people would be willing to pay for such content.

While Reid agrees that unique content will always win over consumers, he says that users would also be willing to pay for convenience.

Reid illustrated this point with an example, saying that its readers were more than happy to pay for the convenience of The Australian’s iPad app, when consumers could have accessed more content - for free - through the viewing the site on their devices web browser.

Packaging or the content?

There’s set to be plenty of trial and error as both Fairfax and News Ltd move to this new era of charging users for online content.

Consumer are going to be exposed to all sorts of deals and content bundles to entice them to start to pay for something that was previously free. Who knows, they might take on Crikey’s approach and offer DVDs and books with every new subscription.

But despite all this experimentation, one thing's set to remain the same. And that’s the kind of content both companies continue to produce. For now, we’re stuck with the assumption that it’s the type of paywall and not the style or quality of news behind it that will influence a  reader’s decision to pay.

Time will tell whether this assumption holds true or whether it’s just being used as an excuse to negate any real editorial change. But it could be a dangerous waiting game and we could end up ruining the one opportunity we have to convince readers that paywalls aren't just worth their time but also their money.

News Limited is owner and publisher of Business Spectator.