On the future of UK newspapers in the internet marketplace

The following commentary is made out of love for an industry in flux…

Excluding newspapers from the equation, paid for news content happens every day, and people don’t seem to mind the cost!
It comes in the form of television fees such as TV Licenses, satellite and cable subscriptions etc; all of which covers the costs of all those wonderful instant and up to the minute news services we can watch from the comfort of our arm chairs.

In spite of this trent, the UK general population are not willing to pay for online news content according to a recent study.

So what is it about the internet and newspapers that makes people say no?

The report by Lightspeed Research, which was commissioned for digital research outfit: The Global Web Index; found that less than 10% of the UK population are currently willing to pay for online news content. Which must surely send alarm bells ringing in ever newspaper office in the land as UK newspapers look towards the web 2.0 boom as a revenue platform. This surely begs the question: can there be any future for UK’s newspapers in the internet marketplace?

And why don’t people want to pay for content? Have the many years of free services from newspaper websites spoiled us? Do people believe a free alternative will still be available? Is written news no longer a valued?  Or is it that people now see news as a free commodity attached onto their entertainment and broadband subscription packages?

Personally… I’d speculate that it would be the latter.

Today people get news content delivered to them by many different platforms… all of which seem carry the same basic content (plus the odd exclusives and feature content). So if one of them decides to kidnap their content and demand ransom for it’s return, it really doesn’t suprise me that people would rather move to an alternative, even if it is at the cost of quality, just so they can keep it free!

The concept of the “free news” has been around for a while. I’m not talking about salon chats and gossip, but the delivery of real news on different platforms. And newspapers have failed to deal with all of them. Some companies evolved or branched out into these new an alien areas, but it’s never been that successful. From radio, TV, teletext (don’t laugh at the inclusion of teletext, when the digital switch over comes many people are going to mourn the death of ceefax) and now the internet, no one seems to have gotten the sales part of it right.

Newspapers do have some things going for them. Their names. And add to that the fact that for many people genuinely believe that better value comes if you pay a higher price! Look at fashion, food, technology and the car industry. The name sells it, and the prices make people want to aspire to own it. But in this chosen marketplace the concept of value is completely different.
The internet is an open marketplace, where content can be purchased, and free alternatives are available. Free alternatives from individuals or large companies, which have the potential to deliver content vastly superior to that of the paid for content. And it’s a marketplace where people ilegally distrube copyrighted work on a peer to peer basis. People are happy to search harder and longer as they can do it at home where they aren’t getting soaked in the rain and the coffee is cheaper.

The paradigm of free content over quality is an interesting one, and one which should be tackled head on by all newspapers. Even if it is looked at, newspapers are still trending towards the use of paid for wire services over staffers and freelancers, as it offers better value for money for their stock holders and businessmen. This content (which is seen by many as free as it incurs no additional costs) is even used instead of work by freelancers or staffers even if theirs is beter. To paraphrase a well respected picture editor of a UK national newspaper “even if the freelancers work is 10-15% better than the wire service, we’re still going to use the wire service as it doesn’t effect our budgets. The freelancers work really does have to offer something unique or be of a much better caliber”.

Despite all of this I do think paid for content for newspapers away from the print run could all be possible. And the quality and value aspects of it are integral to the solution.

But if newspapers can’t see it in their budgets to pay for better content, then why should the average reader pay for content that isn’t a million miles better than that of the free alternatives?

There could still be hope for newspapers who wish to keep the existing platform. The study found that the younger generations were more likely to be willing to pay for online news content, so if any newspapers can last with their print models for another 20 years or so, they could start making those big online profits without having to rework what they are producing.

By: James Dodd