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Online media must not become a paid-for cartel

September 16, 2009

Rupert Murdoch once again gave a boost to media-by-subscription at yesterday’s Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference in New York.  In a speech where he reported a rebound in the advertising market, he reiterated that News Corp media had plans to increase non-advertising revenue.

The media is now lining up behind the idea that there is money to be made through subscriptions, via either a ‘freemium’ model, offering additional benefits to subscribers, or through micro-payments.

Their long reluctance to go down the paid-for route online suggests that their former view – that ad revenue lost through reduced reader/viewer figures could not be recouped by subscriptions – has changed.

So what makes the subscription model seem so appealing now?  Here are three suggestions:

  1. Ad revenue per media channel is projected to fall so far in the near future that the subscription model is now viable. This is quite conceivable, given the proliferation of media channels.
  2. New technologies such as mobile devices and electronic readers offer a point of difference worth paying for. With Spotify and the Wall Street Journal just two channels offering mobile content for a fee, it suggests mobile devices could boost subscriptions in a previously unachievable way.  As Murdoch said at Communacopia : I do certainly see the day when more people will be buying their newspapers on portable reading panels than on crushed trees.
  3. The mainstream media now believes it can corner the market for paid-for news/analysis.  Recent moves to centralise electronic media behind specific techologies, such as mydigitalnewspaper.com , Google Fast Flip and Journalism Online (which is specifically a payments system) mean the mainstream media may increasingly be able to behave like a cartel. Early moves towards paid-for models by the Financial Times and New York Times may be followed by a mass shift to paid-for online news.

Paid-for online services should theoretically be more customer-focused and financially sustainable than those that are ad-funded – but if pricing were to be set in an uncompetitive way, that would be an unfortunate outcome.

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