WHEN Rupert Murdoch indicates a shift in strategy, the rest of the media industry takes notice. So the News Corp boss's clear signal last week that his newspapers, such as the Sun and the Times, could start charging for online access over the next year gave fresh momentum to a debate that is dominating internal newspaper discussions.
"The inchoate days of the internet will soon be over," Murdoch pronounced, citing an "epochal" debate in the industry. Having flirted with the idea of turning the Wall Street Journal website free before realising he had bought one of the world's few newspaper sites that makes money, Murdoch has come down in favour of online charging.
For a long time many journalists have been bemused and frustrated that their work merits a price in one medium but is given away free in another. Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group which publishes MediaGuardian, believes publishers need to think about where they might be able to charge in the future. "There's no review of the charging model, there's no formal kind of agreement that we should be charging at all, but it would be wrong not to think about what we would do in the future," she says.
Charging for business-to-business content, however, is a "no-brainer", says McCall, who led GMG's acquisition of Emap's B2B operation on the strength of its capacity to generate digital revenues. The model supporting so-called business-to-professional sites, such as MediaGuardian.co.uk, is "something we need to keep revisiting". But, in general news, the presence of the BBC makes charging impossible: "You basically have a fully funded and publicly funded news organisation on your doorstep. How can you compete with that?"
The BBC is what makes all newspaper executives think twice when it comes to making the internet pay. It has played its part in creating the notion that news should be free, which stands as a barrier to introducing any element of pay to newspaper websites.
Until now, the most important aim for newspapers has been to grow online readership: the higher a site's unique user numbers, the more advertising it could hope to sell. And the numbers have been impressive – titles used to falling paper sales now have millions of new readers. There is no doubt that online readership has massively extended the reach of British newspapers.
Indeed, the combined online audience for the seven audited UK national newspaper networks – the websites of the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent, Mail, Sun and Mirror – peaked in January at around 140 million unique users, when Guardian.co.uk hit a record of 29.8 million. It has tailed off very slightly since then, the first sign that online readership may have reached a plateau now that broadband access has become so widespread and online habits more settled.
To some extent, revenues have followed the trend for readership growth – but not fast enough to make up for the fall in print advertising. Trinity Mirror, for instance, reported that total digital revenues in 2008 grew by 27.1% to £43.6m. But they also represented just 5% of the group total, albeit an increase from 3.7% in 2007, at a time when overall revenues dropped by more than £60m.
Advertisers have always seen a difference between consumers of print products who might be expected to spend considerable time reading them and looking at many of the adverts in the process, and a web user who may have merely strayed on to a web page by chance or as the result of making a speculative search.
And even if online readership has yet to reach saturation point, some industry executives think that growing overall numbers may no longer make much difference to their ability to generate new revenues – although they will not find it easy, initially at least, to allow competitors to overtake their traffic figures. Not only is there a finite amount of money available for online advertising, but there are also many, many sites competing for the cash. Newspapers are wondering whether they backed the wrong horse by going for volume rather than subscription.
The focus is now moving to the handful of pay models that have already been developed in publishing. The only British paper that has successfully introduced charging is the Financial Times which, seven years after doing so, has around 110,000 subscribers. A basic subscription to FT.com costs £2.99 a week – £155.48 a year – while a premium deal that includes mobile news and the Lex column costs £3.99 a week, or £207.48 a year.
At less than a third of the £650 cost of buying the print FT every day, and less than half the £468 required to take out a print subscription, the online deal looks like bad business for the company. But Rob Grimshaw, the managing director of FT.com, says the cost of online distribution is far less than printing and distributing a paper. "Online, the marginal cost of adding a new subscription to FT.com from anywhere in the world is pretty much zero. Once you look at it from that aspect, the online business model is extremely favourable. You don't tend to make nearly as much revenue as print but you make the same profit or even more profit."
But without the FT's business niche to target, can other papers charge for content? The fear is that their product is too disposable and substitutable – with multiple versions of the same story online. "Consumers aren't stupid," says Grimshaw. "If they can find something for free they won't pay for it."
Then there is the problem of how to charge. Rather than relying on a subscription model, a solution could involve micropayments – although there is no consensus on how much they would be. Newspapers will have to ensure that whichever system they use is efficient and easy, like Amazon or iTunes. Indeed, newspapers look hopefully towards these other areas of the media where a pay model has already been introduced. The music industry, after its crippling battle against piracy, has finally found a way to sell digital content, albeit at a discount compared with CD sales.
The broadcasting industry offers a less clear picture. The principle of paying for TV, mainly on the back of premium content, has become enshrined after 20 years of Sky, and on-demand viewing through subscriptions has become popular. But there is little evidence that people are willing to go online and pay for individual programmes. The success of the licence-fee funded BBC iPlayer has encouraged ITV to follow suit with a free, ad-funded model, while Channel 4's 4OD service has shifted away from pay-per-view since launching in 2006. Project Kangaroo, the three free-to-air broadcasters' attempt to develop an online home where they might have sold their programmes, was thwarted by competition concerns. (Equally, if newspapers were to make a collective decision to charge for content, which would avoid losing market share to other titles that remained free, there might be similar concerns.)
Perhaps the best hope for newspapers is technological. In the same way that the iPod helped sales of digital music, newspapers hope that there is a device on its way to make the online paper seem more valuable than it does on a computer screen. Some newspaper groups are believed to have had discussions with Amazon about getting their product on to the Kindle reader, a new version of which was launched in the US last week by Jeff Bezos (pictured left). But few believe these first-generation digital readers represent an iPod moment.
Murdoch last week hinted at some of the work News Corp has been doing. "We are looking at lots of things, models for charging, mobile readers," he said. "I don't believe in the Kindle model but I do think it is very interesting that people are going to that and to their BlackBerrys to view content."
In two years' time he hopes that charges for online content will produce digital revenues that make up for newspapers' print losses. That may be optimistic, but there is no doubt the recession has concentrated minds on moving out of the free era.
"There are not many companies out there that make a successful living by giving away their product for free," says Grimshaw. "In the future, quite a lot will be written about how an entire industry managed to persuade itself that it would be smart to give away its product to everybody."