Wapping's paywall: Not the only game in town

In the final week of May, or perhaps the first week of June, we’ll get our first glimpse of Wapping’s paywall. Both The Times and the Sunday Times have started a month-long countdown to launch.

But there’s more in the pipeline. Yesterday, during a Q&A with analysts and journalists, Rupert Murdoch mentioned a different (but simultaneous?) launch that may turn out to be more important.

For better or worse, this sounds like the culmination of all of those efforts to build a coalition of the willing among publishers. Here’s what Murdoch said:

Today we’re in final discussions with a number of publishers, device makers and tech companies and we will soon deliver an innovative subscription model that will deliver digital content to consumers, wherever and whenever they want it.

Later in the session, Murdoch took part in a curious exchange with Kenneth Li of the FT, who asked for further information:

Murdoch: We’ll be giving a press conference in three to four weeks which we hope will have some important announcements. I’m sorry not to be more explicit…

Li: So this would be an app for entertainment as well?

Murdoch: Oh, you bet. Everyone’s been negotiating with Apple about TV shows, films. We do VOD, everything on there.

Li: This would be a direct rival to iTunes?

Murdoch: [Background voice: “Yes”]. No, well I guess so. It’s an extension of it.

It’s not entirely clear what’s being discussed here. Despite Murdoch’s mention of a “model” and Li’s mention of “apps”, News Corp seems to be promising a cross-industry platform for publishing and selling digital paid content.

Note the reference to ‘everything on there'(ie: video from broadcasters and text from newspapers and magazines). Murdoch also refers to ‘delivering digital content to consumers, wherever and whenever they want it”. (This makes me think about smartphones and iPads. . . as well as the desktop web.)

The discussion of iTunes is bizarre. At first, an unidentified voice (possibly belonging to News Corp COO Chase Carey), suggests that yes, media owners will compete with Apple’s online store.

Cutting in quickly, Murdoch disagrees at first, before apparently reversing his position (”Well, I guess so.”) Finally, Murdoch adds that we should anticipate an ‘extension’of iTunes.

Regardless, the tone is expansive. By contrast, in yesterday’s conference call with analysts and journalists, Murdoch failed to mention the Wapping paywall.

It’s tempting to think that Next Issue Media, the low-profile US-based consortium of publishers founded last year to deal coordinate a response to the iPad, will be part of the launch to which Murdoch refers.

News Corporation is a founder member of this consortium, alongside Time, Conde Nast and Hearst. John Squires, the former Time executive in charge of Next Issue Media, has been a busy boy since the consortium got up and running last December. I suspect that he has played a major role in the the negotiations Murdoch mentioned yesterday.

On Squires’ blog, there’s talk of a ‘web-based storefront”. (Rather like iTunes, you’d have to guess. And if that’s the case, why not sell subscriptions to the Times and the Sunday Times through it, too?).

Squires also has plans for what he describes as a ‘universal content e-wallet”. (Anyone for seamless interoperability between handheld devices produced by rival hardware vendors?)

In addition, the consortium has spent a lot of time working on the nuts and bolts of getting content on to new devices. As for advertising on iPad-like devices, Squires is promising an ‘innovative digital advertising platform featuring pioneering measurement tools”.

We also know — courtesy of a blog post dated 5th April — that Squires’ consortium is planning a consumer-facing launch “quite soon”. (Anyone for the last week of May or the first week of June?)

Squires, it seems, has ‘gone through literally hundreds of options’looking for a ‘name and logo to capture the essence and vigor of our venture — one that will truly excite both consumers and potential business partners alike”.

In recent history, there haven’t been too many moments when the media industry has stolen a march on the technology industry. The launch to which Rupert Murdoch referred yesterday may turn out to be one of these rare moments.

Squires is known to have had discussions with Apple (and presumably Google, too). But we don’t yet know how many media owners he has been able to attract into his tent. Nor do we know what role, if any, outfits like Skiff and Press+ (a.k.a. Steve Brill’s Journalism Online) will play in next month’s announcement.

But the tech industry is split (as it usually is, for a short while, before a runaway market leader emerges in a new market). The intense competition that exists between Apple, Amazon and Google offers the possibility that for once, content owners might be able to deal from a position of strength.

In a few weeks’ time, we’ll learn whether some of the world’s biggest media owners have got their act together. Make no mistake: this is bigger than a paywall.

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