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Technology Editor of Times of London until July 2010. Now swimming in the freelance shark pool, with abiding interest in games, gadgets and what it all means. If you're looking for product reviews, head elsewhere. Unless it's a really nice product. This is more of an attempt to sift out what matters from what doesn't. With a bit of gossip thrown in for good measure. I'm also learning to use Blogger as I go along, so please bear with me.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Let's play a game called You are Rupert Murdoch

As a former employee of The Times, and someone quite close to all the paywall shenanigans, I've been very interested this week to read and gauge the reaction to pieces by David Mitchell in the Guardian/Observer and Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff.

In the case of Mitchell, what surprised me was not so much what he said, but the number of comments the article attracted. Broadly speaking, Mitchell's argument was the entirely sensible one that while you may not like Rupert Murdoch or what he stands for, people in all manner of creative industries are willing the paywall to succeed, in order to secure their futures, pay bills, raise families without having to sell body parts etc etc.

Wolff's stance is far more aggressive. He claims insider info showing that the new PAYWALLED Times website is attracting so few visitors that it's effectively fallen off the map. He concludes that the paywall experiment is doomed and that the Sunday and daily Times are now facing merger for the first time in their history (both papers maintain separate staff and communication between them is all but non-existent).

He writes:-

The wider implications of this emptiness are only just starting to become clear. A Murdoch and Fleet Street veteran with whom I’ve been corresponding about the paywall reported to me on his recent conversation with an A-list entertainment publicist: “What was really interesting to me was that this person volunteered a blinding realization. ‘Why would I get any of my clients to talk to the Times or the Sunday Times if they are behind a paywall? Who can see it? I can't even share a link and they aren't on search. It’s as though their writers don't exist anymore.’”

But it ain't necessarily so.

Put aside, for a moment, the issue of whether payment is desirable for online content, and imagine that you, yes you, are Rupert Murdoch.

You have decided to charge for online content because you want your businesses to make money. You are, after all, a businessman, and this is what businessmen do. Charging, you know, is an experiment, and the wonderful thing about online is how quickly you can change your rules if it doesn't work.

It therefore makes complete sense for you to start by surrounding your content with an impenetrable brick wall. Who knows, it may work. Going in the opposite direction with a creeping paywall would certainly alienate readers.

If it doesn't work, you then review your options. Should the blogs be free? Should news stories be free, but linked to paid-for commentary pieces? You know that it's not news per se that people pay for when purchasing a newspaper, but the paper's TAKE on the news.

The question that remains, and is fundamental to the fate of the Times's paywall experiment, is how to get that take out there? At present, that's one of the two areas where it's really failing.

Google is no longer picking up Times stories, and the BBC (the UK's number 2 referrer) is not currently linking to paid sites. These are problems that you are working to resolve. Don't count the paywall out on those grounds. Things change. It's early days. You have patience.

The other great question is the payment method. The Times still hasn't got this right. You know this, and you know that payments need to be seamless and painless, as they are with iTunes. Packaging subscriptions to all your companies - especially if you succeed in taking full control of Sky - may be the future.

In short, this is a long game, and it's only just begun. And you, Mr Murdoch, are a wily crocodile who can survive for years without filling your belly with profit from one of your many media divisions. Again, look at Sky.

Alternatively, consider the following. You've tried to make money out of the internet and come to believe it can't be done in any meaningful way. So, cut costs. Slash the staff, automate as many pages as possible, reduce server and bandwidth costs by cutting visitor numbers, make the online presence little more than a clickable PDF of the paper. Then concentrate on digital publishing. Here, your iPad app is already doing rather well, an Android one is in early stages of development, and your existing Kindle subscription is performing adequately.

While everyone else is chasing the red herrings of the website, you start to make serious money from direct delivery. You know more about the people who use your apps than any other publisher - because they're paying - and that makes them a desirable target for advertisers. Or it will, when digital advertising catches up with your thinking.

When changes to the Times site and paywall come - as they will - media observers will fall over one another to draw lessons. But none of these is definitive. The web moves on, and so does Murdoch. Every single one of the problems currently being gleefully pointed out in rival media was known about in advance.

The next time someone makes an overly hasty pronouncement on web payment, just picture yourself as a large crocodile, lurking, patient, full of power and able to change direction with the smallest flick of your tail.

(Incidentally, I completely disagree with Wolff's take on PR, above. In my experience of dealing with PRs, the only way to get hold of certain things was to guarantee coverage in print. The higher tech the company, the more they loved ink and paper. Oh, the irony.)

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