All news content on the internet will be paid for in ten years.
Broadly speaking that was the outcome of a high level debate sponsoured by YouGov and the London Press Club, held at London’s British Library last night (March 18), and chaired by Andrew Neil. The prediction takes into account YouGov’s own research that asked over 1000 members of the public, and a shade fewer ‘UK opinion formers’, what they thought about digital ‘pay walls’, combined with the result of a straw poll at the end of the debate that caught me at odds with the majority who clearly believed paying for news/current affairs/magazine content, on line, is the way forward.
The panel of experts – with job titles so hefty I wish I was paid ‘wordage’ – comprised News UK’s chief marketing officer Katie Vanneck Smith, the managing director digital of the London Evening Standard and The Independent, Zach Leonard, the digital strategist at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Nic Newman, and the co-global president of Havas Worldwide (advising corporations on digital advertising) Kate Robertson.
To keep it brief Katie from News UK said all content should be paid for – no ifs or buts – and that when her customers (100,000 to date signed up for the Sunday Times) are behind the pay wall, both she and News UK, knowing all there is to know about their subscribers, can work with advertisers to tailor online ads, especially those on the ‘free’ App versions of News UK’s publications. Softly spoken Zach Leonard said that the Standard and Indy are experimenting with a mix of ‘soft’ or ‘metered’ and ‘hard’ pay walls, meaning that readers may access a certain amount of material for free, but any more they must pay for. Nic Newman, whose time is spent researching the issue, said that times were changing (which most people there agreed with). Adding that Facebook and Google were making more money than most media outlets because they’ve been quicker and more ruthless to exploit the data they hold on their customers. In other words they have years of experience at making it easy for advertisers.
The most interesting take on the issue came from the woman from Havas (repeatedly alluding to her age and that things are different to how they were) saying that if anyone in the audience had children or grandchildren who are thinking about becoming journalists – they should think again. She said they should study mathematics and data management, because then they they could “rule the world”. She said they could go into journalism as a hobby.
Andrew Neil was a fine chairman and quick to pick up on a comment from a member of the audience who proposed that if we are not careful the media could soon find itself driven more by the data supplied by its subscribers than the issues: “We could have the tail wagging the dog,” he said.
“Could we be in danger then of giving the reader what they don’t want,” posed Neil, “until they want it?”
“You’re right to fear it,” said Robertson. “I fear it too. I can tell you the plus value of the person who goes through the opay wall.” As an advertiser “we will pay more beyond the pay wall.”
Personally don’t know anyone under 25 who either buys or reads a daily newspaper, except those who pick them up casually for free on the London tube, and toss them away having glanced at them. Youngsters don’t make the time for newspapers, and they don’t see the value in them. As the panel agreed, they get the headlines and bare bones of current affairs from a number of free sites including the BBC, Mail and Guardian.
Katie Vanneck Smith said that that the majority of subscribers to The Sun’s recently launched pay site are under 25, which is impressive if true. There was also general enthusiasm for the number of young people reading longer articles on the BuzzFeed site. Although I suspect this latter endorsement has more to do with middleaged people wanting to appear hip with unvarnished enthusiasm for another primary coloured lightweight youth site.
The debate looked soley at ways in which publishers can earn money. It did nothing to address the quality of journalism and avoided the controversial issue of personal data – what it is used for, and where it is passed around, and sold on?
I can’t be alone when I say I wouldn’t mind paying for digital content, with the proviso that I do not have to provide information about me other than my credit card details. When I buy my newspaper at the corner shop each day I do not have to complete a form with questions about my age, where I live, my ethnic background and interests. I buy my paper the way I buy my milk and potatoes: IE I hand over the money and the retailer says thanks, enjoy, have a nice day. End of story.