What will the Guardian do if Murdoch's paywall succeeds?

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Guardian will emerge as one of the champions of free-to-air digital content when the Times and Sunday Times erect their paywalls in June.

This, after all, is a newspaper that employs Jeff Jarvis as a columnist. We’ve also witnessed Emily Bell, GNM’s director of digital content, arguing that general news paywalls are a ‘stupid idea”. In January, the Guardian depicted Alan Rusbridger, its own editor, as ‘the poster boy of the free web movement”.

It’s often said that the Guardian will become the world’s biggest liberal news site when the New York Times introduces its paywall in 2011. The expectation seems near-universal.

But what if Murdoch’s paywall is successful? What if the combination of digital advertising revenue and subscription charges generated by Times Newspapers Ltd exceeds the £25m a year that guardian.co.uk brings in from advertising? What if the ad spend diverted from Times Online doesn’t benefit the Guardian or the Telegraph as much as everyone expects?

What then?

If the dilemma does arise, it’s worth remembering that there’s a difference between writing about business and running one. If ideology often makes for a good think piece, pragmatism is the preferred approach of publishers.

This weekend, I even started to wonder whether the Guardian is preparing for the possible success of Rupert Murdoch’s paywalls. This would trigger a feisty internal debate. Indeed, that debate may already be under way. Here are three potential straws in the wind:

Exhibit No.1: Monthly charges for the Guardian’s iPhone app

The FT broke this story on Saturday, but then buried it within a re-hashed treatment of News International’s paywall announcement. Here’s the quote the FT serves up from a ‘senior Guardian executive”:

“We’ll enhance the app, and then the whole aim will be to get that on monthly subscription because it has been amazingly successful and . . . a fantastic experiment.”

Will the Guardian charge for an app, or for its stories? On one level, it hardly matters: what’s involved is a recurring payment for enhanced access to content. Rupert Murdoch would happily describe this as a paywall.

Intriguingly, the FT goes on to suggest that the Guardian is just one of many newspapers ‘considering similar moves [to News International] in the wake of falling advertising demand and lower circulations as readers migrate online”.

Oh really?

Exhibit No.2: Alan Rusbridger is ‘not entrenched”

This weekend, the Independent On Sunday asked Carolyn McCall about paywalls. The first paragraph of McCall’s response reiterates the Guardian’s standard position. The second is more interesting.

“At the moment, we have said we are not going to have a pay-wall for general content, but for specialist content there is a model to charge.

‘We’re not as polarised as you might think. This is our strategy at the moment, but, of course, we will watch what happens. Alan is a visionary, but he is not entrenched. He is open-minded about these things.”

Not entrenched, not polarised, but open-minded. On this basis, the Guardian will surely consider following Murdoch’s example if he meets with success.

Exhibit No.3: Is Emily Bell coming over all pragmatic, too?

If Alan Rusbridger isn’t polarized, what about Emily Bell? The Guardian’s director of digital content has been a trenchant critic of widely-drawn paywalls. Bell’s opposition is both sophisticated and ideological. Not so long ago, a Guardian executive told me that the paper would introduce a paywall ‘over Emily’s dead body”.

Today, however, Bell filed a column that seemed to strike a different tone. In it, Bell sketched out a battleground in shades of grey, rather than black and white. She pointed to ‘many businesses’that operate ‘a number of ‘hybrid’ models”. . . including the Guardian. The case for paid content, Bell admitted, is ‘partly pragmatic”.

Somewhat defensively, Bell fell back on the ideological argument against paywalls. Those who argue against paywalls, she pointed out, are asking whether journalism is ‘a commodity or a democratic necessity”.

‘I am happy to be proved wrong, but I still find it hard to understand how deliberately downsizing your audience is ever going to help with [this] broader problem.”

Happy to be proved wrong? It’s not going to happen. That’s because what we’re dealing with here is an article of faith, not a matter of fact.

Yet if Rupert Murdoch’s approach does work, it won’t be easy to deploy ideology against the potential for enhanced revenues. In the long run, even democratic necessities need to break even.

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