There has been a lot of chatter recently about the issue of newspapers charging for their on-line content – driven by Rupert Murdoch’s speculation that this is what he, and the industry is going to have to do very shortly.
However, the issue is not free content. What is killing traditional news providers is free distribution.
The price that Murdoch et al have to charge for their content is driven by the fact that their organisations are chained to expensive distribution models. Organisations that don’t have that ball and chain can afford to give their content away because their costs are so much lower they can cover these via advertising alone.
There is no point in believing that the answer lies in charging for on-line content because the amount of money you could raise through this would never adequately subsidise the costs of maintaining print or other distribution technologies which are becoming both outmoded and less relevant. When you buy a newspaper, you don’t buy content (although you may think that is what you are doing). You are actually buying lots of large sheets of printed paper (clue is in the name here), updated evey 24 hours plus the convenience of a distribution system that means that you can buy the current version of this lump of paper at tens of thousands of places around the country.
The future for Murdoch and the traditional media as a whole has to lie in restructuring their distribution model. Think of distribution as a debt that has become unsustainable. Businesses are accustomed to restructuring debt – Murdoch himself has had a painfull brush with such an experience – they need to apply the same thinking and sense of urgency to restructuring distribution.
Talk of charging for content is just a distraction that puts off the inevitable day when this particular nettle has to be grasped. Worse, it runs the risk of destroying the link with the world within which lies the solution for branded, institutionalised, news providers – even if they don’t realise it yet. For a more lengthy discourse on the future of newspapers (as distinct from the future of news provision) see this.
The social media revolution, as I never tire of saying, is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution. Hitch your fortunes to the information and you will prosper, chain yourself to means of distribution and you will die.