Murdoch’s Paywall

November 23, 2009 in Business, Economics, Essays

There has been a lot debate online recently surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s change of mind about paywalls for his online newspapers. I’ve been reading a huge number of arguments on both sides (including a 40min video interview with Rupert himself) and am sad to say that most of them seem to be missing the point.

Earlier today I read Adrian Weckler’s article ‘The case for a paywall for Irish newspapers’, and decided to write my response in a post here, and to summarize my thoughts on the debate in general.

Paywall or Die?

Ardian makes many of the points that are being made by journalists and newsfolk around the world, that the business model is collapsing and they can’t afford to keep giving it all away for free. He finishes his article with the question:

But if the choice is a continuous decline in circulation figures or a paywall, it’s not really that tough a choice. I mean, ask yourself: what would you do?

The fundamental problem in the paywall debate, but the one too often overlooked, is one of supply and demand. The question the article asks is “Should we decide to command a price, yes or no?”, but economics tells us that the only question one can really ask is “Can we command a price“.

As a simple analogy, imagine one major Irish newspaper put up a paywall, but none of it’s competitors decided to follow suit. This paper obviously wouldn’t do so well, most of the news stories would be available in the other major publications or elsewhere online, it’s own articles wouldn’t be shared, tweeted or linked to as much as other papers and it would also lose the water-cooler effect if much fewer people are reading it.

This is the best analogy I can think of to describe the problems I see with an industry wide paywall – but the problems that afflict that single newspaper would hurt the whole industry, and the competition would be from other online news sources, international papers, bloggers and independent journalists.

The Economics

If you view news as a commodity, it can be fairly undifferentiated. If you take my analogy above, there are some people who would stay and pay for the subscription, but most would not. This is because the news is largely the same to them regardless of the source.

It is also served up at a near zero marginal cost. Think about it, how much does it cost the Sunday Business Post for each additional article read by a new visitor (or even – how much does it cost In economics, when the market is competitive, price will always fall to the marginal cost. If you’re in an industry with a marginal cost of close to zero, it will be very, very, very difficult to command a price.

The Business Model

So back to the closing question, paywall or death? As always, (and without wanting to sound like a Carlsberg commercial) there’s a better third option here. This is a business model problem that newspapers have. In print, they have little competition for audience attention, and therefore can sell that attention for a high price to advertisers. Online, this is not the case, and so the price the can command for advertising is much lower. They therefore need a new revenue model, and here’s my suggestion for how they should get started:

Always remember that standard news articles cost nothing to distribute, attract an audience and command no price, so if you’re going to publish them, keep them free. Then figure out how to convert a proportion of the readers of those articles into paying customers.

If you want to charge your readers (or a subset of your readers), start by asking what value you can add to your service to make it worth the price. This is the biggest flaw in Murdoch’s plan – he’s wants to introduce a new price, but without introducing a new clear reason for his customers to buy. Some publications, like the WSJ, already add value by offering in depth insight into content for a specific market. This is one option, but it does leave you open to new competition that could easily offer the same content for free.

Preferably this new revenue model would involve selling new scarcities, such as personalisation, physical products, access to ‘behind the scenes’, or an editors time (e.g. letters to the editor can be read by everyone, but only written by subscribers – or better yet a discussion forum with the editors, accessible only by subscribers).

Here are some quick examples of news organisations leveraging free news articles to sell scarcities (there’s obviously not too many examples though, otherwise the industry wouldn’t be in such a pickle!):

  • Tecdirt’s “crystal ball” membership option – for only $15 per year “with the Techdirt Crystal ball, we give you a chance to see the headlines of some of the posts we’re working on, and some indication of when they might get published. And, once a story is published, you’ll be able to see it up to 60 minutes before anyone else can.”
  • The New York Times’ Gold & Silver online membership plans – The packages carry an annual cost of $150 and $50, respectively, and emphasize behind-the-scenes benefits like newsroom tours, exclusive videos of reporters telling “the story behind the story” and ancient back issues.
  • The Insight Community – a clever way to charge a brand to work with your readers to build or design a new product.

So that’s my input and advice for this debate, and can be summarized in these two lessons that I learned on my first day of Leaving Cert Economics:

  1. In order for a good to command a price, it must be scarce in relation to demand
  2. In a competitive market, price will always fall towards the Marginal Cost of production