Media: Will you pay it forward for News?

Media: Will you pay it forward for News?

The Queen's Brisbane visit had us in a right royal bother yesterday as temperatures reached 28 degrees and News Limited's Courier Mail tracked her majesty's moves. But in the world of media it was The Australian's online relaunch and paywall that had people talking. 

The big point of contention: will Australians pay for "general news" even if it is classed as superior in quality – the "premium" variety – when they can get it most places for free (including via public broadcaster the ABC) or from a strong overseas brand (The New York Times, The Guardian) for a smaller fee? After all, George Negus is out while The 7PM Project (TV's equivalent to News Limited's stays. 

Working against the paywall launch is also public perception: the organisation under which The Australian exists remains tainted by the News of the World brush. As the paper's Mark Day asserted yesterday in his column on the annual meeting of News Corp stockholders: "There is no way of knowing now what the phone hacking scandal will cost the company. There is also no way of knowing where the next outbreak will be... The battle has been won but the war has just begun. Even the mums and dads, many of whom are superannuants, are raising questions."

Granted, News Limited has done a pretty good job of distancing itself from the British scandal. The Australian media, it has said, is a different beast. But public perception – as any brand manager knows – is everything when you are asking people to part with their money. We will pay for brands we trust; for assurance of quality – we are the land of Vegemite, of Weet-Bix, of KingGee.

The Australian's online offering to date has often been more Home Brand than premium, even though its brow is higher than thou, as it has battled against the tide of bloggers to upload the newest content thereby watering down its core offering and strengths. Its image has been further tainted by the slanging match between the paper and Brown and Manne, et al. If love does not boast; is not self-seeking, then The Australian is lacking for affection. 

And this is my opinion despite being a devoted reader of the paper's Monday and weekend editions and a believer in its journalism when it's at its best. It boasts some of the most impressive by-lines in the country (Paul Kelly, Paul Keating anyone?): this is a big selling point. And I appreciate that it provides an ideological counterpoint in national discourse from those more left-wing voices at Fairfax and the ABC. But a climate of suspicion, of distrust, of cynicism spoils the broth.

Dissected and discussed at large in media circles, the paywall gives readers the option of a three-month free trial period ending December 15, after which time they will have to choose from four "freemium" packages:
- a $2.95 per week ($11.80 p/month) digital pass (website, apps, mobile);
- a $7.95 per week ($31.80) digital pass plus 7-day-a-week print subscription;
- a $4.50 per week ($18) digital pass and Weekend Australian print subscription;
- a $5.20 per week ($20.80) digital pass, plus The Weekend Australian, plus single weekday print edition subscription. (The likely option for GWAS).

"News Corporation publications The Wall Street Journal and The Times and The Sunday Times of London have highly successful digital subscription packages, with The Times and The Sunday Times now growing overall print and digital circulation," said an official statement. "The New York Times introduced digital subscriptions earlier this year and now has over 1.1 million digital subscribers."

But The New York Times doesn't like being compared to The Times of London. Its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, told Reuters that it would be a "false comparison", as, "They have a gate, a real wall. We aren't doing that." The New York Times instead operates on a metred model, whereby heavy users are asked to pay once they hit a content limit. Though it has gaps, allowing tech-savvy users to navigate around the wall, Felix Samon of Wired asserts this is good business, as uppity exclusivity can be a deterrent: 

Paying for something you value, even when you don’t need to, is a mark of a civilized society. The NYT treated its readers as mature and civilized adults, and outperformed internal expectations as a result. Meanwhile, the WSJ and FT are still treating their readers with mistrust, as though they’ll be robbed somehow if they ever let their guard down a little. It’s a sad and ultimately self-defeating stance, and I hope in future they learn from the NYT’s embrace of the open web, even in conjunction with a paywall.

The New York Times [owned by The New York Times Company with] reportedly had 34 million U.S. based uniques as of September 2011, a 2.3% increase year-on-year, with international page views decreasing and domestic views declining only marginally since the digital subscription model was introduced in March. The site has 324,000 paid digital subscribers, which has helped lift revenue. This is great news for The Australian.

By contrast, granted on a smaller per capita scale, The Australian Financial Review – which runs a tight digital ship – had 6,711 digital subscribers as at February 2011. AFR was the first Australian newspaper to install a paywall, attracting premiums for its online offering since 2002 (in its current format since 2007). Subscribers get the print and online edition package for $109 a month (weekday) or $119 a month (Mon to Sat). The print edition – which has a circulation of 73,769 and readership of 257,000 (weekend edition: 79,590; 153,000) – costs $2.50. Its website's selling point is up-to-the-minute market news, commentary and analysis from a trusted source. 

The Australian's digital editor Nick Hopkins told Mediaweek that the paper wants to grow its online audience base, building on its "good, strong, very high quality business content", one of the paper's hallmarks. Hopkins also asserts that the pricing structure is about keeping it simple for people: "We've got to show our customers some love." Though there's slim chance of having the free trial period extended, he says, "We simply have to try to be nimble and listen to how our audience responds and to be mindful that we will get things wrong at times." 

The Australian's website – which has 'Login' and 'Signup' points upon entry – lies somewhere in between The New York Times online and Its new look is cleaner, simplified, orderly affair with sections devoted to News, Opinion, National Affairs, Business, Aus IT, Higher Ed, Media, Sport, Arts, Magazines and Careers, which is good news for skittish online brains who suffer from over-stimulation and also for advertisers who want to align themselves with specific content.

The revamped media section includes a 'Daily Small Talk' blog post and 'Daily Global Media' post, which run the gamut from international news links to arts, entertainment and media-related content. 

The New York Times has, at the time of writing, 1,743,936 Facebook followers who subscribe via feed to a select digest of the site's breaking news, opinion pieces and feature stories, which include a mini blurb and visual. It's a highly engaging way to interact with the content, selectively choosing that which piques the interest – it's a partial glimpse of the site's content, but more often than not spurs the reader on to explore other links on the site once they have clicked through to read the article they've selected.

As one young digital media producer told me yesterday, "I actually hate opening a browser and going to look for news. Rather, I am directed [to news sites] via Twitter, and I read the papers on the iPad and buy the actual paper... When it comes to day to day news, I just want it presented in the simplest way possible, which Twitter offers. So if the few words are enticing enough to make me want to read on, I will. I am happy to pay for news."

Happy media consumers is what we need. And that means creating an environment for practising what Laurie Oakes called in his Andrew Ollie Media Lecture "joie de journalism." When you have your back up against a wall, when all the love is sucked out of the profession by time and cost constraints and relentless mud-slinging matches, that's hard to produce. But, as The New York Times the relationship between paying readers and salaried journalists is synonymous: the financial investment of the public into good journalism makes news organisations want to produce more of it.

So how can The Australian pay it forward? The key would seem to be quality content appropriated for all mediums with access points across the social media spectrum. Only time will tell if The Australian will prosper in this new age of money exchange and grow its readership numbers.

Girl With a Satchel