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The Coming News Paywall

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A recent study has suggested that more and more people are willing to pay for online news content which has traditionally one of the major stumbling blocks for moving news content online. Consider how long it took for established news outlets to get a web presence let alone establish any meaningful following online. Here TechWench discusses the content of the British study and its suggestions as it comes ahead of a coming paywall by the established media outlets of television and newspapers.

The Coming News Paywall

When the internet first started being dispersed as a technology and began finding its way into homes it was eschewed by the mainstream media outlets such as BBC, CNN & Sky, also by newspaper services such as The Times, Independent and The Sun to name a few. This was the status quo on both sides of the pond for many a year whilst they maintained the impression that there way was the fastest and most accurate way of gathering information and dispersing it to the masses, up until around the Death of Dial-Up and the advent of Web 2.0. At this juncture in time home computing technology had dispersed into the homes of the masses at enough of a level that parents were finding themselves browsing the internet, it was no longer the preserve of teenagers and nerds; the public had arrived.

This public arrival, coupled with the speedy website interaction enabled by PHP, ASP & other Web 2.0 enablers, meant that there was now enough of a viewership online to merit the major news outlets spending a little more attention on their online audiences. What had been happening during this period of reticence by the bigger outlets? Independent news outlets had sprung up catering to specific locations, tastes and beliefs, outlets which confused the older generation who preferred their news from the TV from the proscribed anchor at the pre-determined time. Catering to their television markets the potentially massive market for the media outlets was given a name which they tried to synonymise with poor credibility; Blogging. Bloggers have long been painted as basement dwelling hacks who spout their own personal beliefs on any number of pseudo-similar news topics. They have been painted as street corner preachers without following or with a following of similarly looned layabouts. But not so anymore; the smartphone revolution, education on computer use and the internets widened usage alongside its widened scope meant that the major news outlets have had to play catch up instead of getting in ahead of the curve. They had to establish their presence later down the line and the findings of the study reflect this; Yahoo boasted greater online followings than Fox News in the US and NHK in Japan.

Twitter and other social networks have enabled massive dissemination of breaking news stories to people who are not necessarily watching the news by appearing in their network feeds, online culture has developed to a point where the offline media regularly reports on the happenings of the internet. The offline media has had to change to accommodate whereas the online sources are much more fluid in their approach and can roll with the flow a lot easier, there are fewer levels to pass to get news to the masses, one tweet can be all it needs to break global news to the masses, any news important enough is bounced around and discussed more and more until everybody is aware of the story. So how are the newspaper outlets and TV junkets going to convince the public to pay for news again?

Subscription packages are the way of it offering access to exclusive articles and commentary on news stories and industry information. This is no new system, consider subscriptions to newspapers delivered by paperboys, it is a system which has been transferred online as it is with NewScientist seeing the value of the internet early on and establishing their own website and presence early on. As the number of solely online news outlets increased alongside the amount of people regularly using the internet these subscription packages became worth pursuing. The internet was of extreme benefit to market traders and financial news outlets were quick to establish themselves online knowing that ‘to the minute’ information is worth millions and billions of dollars to the right people, people who don’t mind paying for access to exclusive insider info. But will the public buy the news?

The answer to that is still doubtful; despite the study being painted as suggesting this by the major news outlets reporting on the study. This is of no surprise once you look a little deeper at the study itself; reporting on the study is followed along headlines such as “Online news is becoming easier to sell” giving a highly leading impression of the studys findings, no wonder when you consider the studies sponsors have been the BBC, Google and media watchdog OfCom who may gain somewhat by the study, Google especially when it can offer subscription packages and get away with it or show disdain for subscription packages and scoop up the traffic of the “im not paying for news, man” crowd. The study itself suggests a public barely ready to accept the notion of paid for news content online, out of 11,000 respondents across nine differing countries from the US across Europe and round to Japan only 9% would be willing to pay for access to online content regularly. This does not suggest a public on the cusp of accepting paywalls as standard, though it does suggest tastes are changing as this 9% figure is double what it was last year.

The study has more to say that suggests that the public is still somewhat against the idea of paywalling their news content or even that they wouldn’t know that a paywall had arrived; 30% of respondents didn’t know or care where there news came from such was their reliance on social networks for their news in Germany, Spain, Italy, France and others. But wait, so the majority still do care? Yes, 70% of people care where there news comes from and 91% don’t want to pay for it. This is a stellar example of how “studies” are used to further ideals and how they act as valuable tools to a Public Relations Counsellor in changing attitudes. The content of the study is less important than how the study is reported, what the study can be made to suggest. By reporting the facts from the viewpoint of the minority percentile they can inflate the importance of their responses. Just look at the opening title to this article as an example; “The Coming News Paywall” makes it sound imminent and widespread despite the fact that upon reading it is an article about a study on news access around the world.

Who is best versed in this leading style of reporting? The established major outlets of course who have long been recognised by the younger generation as mouthpieces for the money makers delivering approved messages with heavy political bias on the nature of any commentary on a story. The lack of interaction available with offline media such as TV or newspaper may be a major factor in the younger generation switching off from the established older outlets, they are accustomed to being able to get involved with a story, to aid in its promotion or to have their views heard and seen alongside the story. The “Tweet of the Day” approach shows just how detached offline media is from the online world, a fact the study also reports. In all countries, bar France, the over 45 crowd strongly preferred to gather their news from TV and Paper sources whilst the under 35 had a strong predilection for online sources, as did the majority of respondents in Latin countries.

Put yourself in the headspace of a network executive charged with the long term profitability of a company, you read the reports and it suggests that you still have an established following for the offline services, the younger generation is unwilling to pay for news sources and have managed for years without, how can your company act to take full advantage of this study? By limiting access and requiring payment of course! The market has moved online and so that is where they are paying now, right? Wrong.

The study suggests that the success of subscription packages in the past year has been primarily for digital magazine access as opposed to general news outlets. Major newspapers such as The Sun, Daily Telegraph and The Washington Post are all considering installing Paywalls for exclusive content but in a connected world they may find themselves as not being exclusive enough. It will not be possible to keep a major news story behind a paywall, if the information is of great enough importance then it will be leaked rapidly. Established outlets forget just how many people believe strongly in the freedom of information who have learnt about the internet and how to use it for all those years that the major outlets castigated online outlets as a passing fad.

I know if I wanted my business to last I would prioritise younger markets over the slim 30-45 years of age demographic of which some are willing to pay for news content. What the study and this article suggests is that studies can be made to say what you like, a fact that major news outlets are well aware of and one that the younger generation is becoming increasingly aware of. They know they don’t need to pay for opinions, they want the source information for free and be left to judge it for themselves.

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