Rory Cellan-Jones

Paying for politics: The Spectator app

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 29 Sep 09, 10:10 GMT

The search for ways that news organisations can make money online is gathering pace, with Rupert Murdoch's pledge to start charging for online content spurring others into action.

The SpectatorSo far, there's not much evidence that readers are willing to pay for journalism on the web, unless it's very specialised - so the digital strategy of one venerable British publication will be examined very carefully by media owners.

The Spectator, the weekly political magazine first published in 1828, has just launched an iPhone app. Nothing particularly interesting about that, you may say. After all plenty of other news organisations, from the New York Times to Sky News to the Telegraph, have already launched applications allowing access to their content on the iPhone and other smartphones.

But all those apps are free, while the Spectator asks iPhone users to pay. The app only costs 59p - and for that you get access to that week's issue plus a searchable archive of 200 older editions. But next week you'll have to pay another 59p for your next Spectator, or £2.36 for thirty days.

The publishers hope that as well as generating subscription revenue, the app will make the magazine more attractive to advertisers - there is an innovative feature which allows you to tap on a phone number in an ad and have yourself put through. Shocking news, then - here's a publication which believes that readers will pay, and pay again, to get access to its content on their phones.

It's prepared the way by starting to restrict how much of the magazine's content you can get on its website for free. That has apparently sparked a leap in the number of digital subscribers who pay around half the price of an "analogue" reader for a year's access. The website acts as a shop window for the product, with a few free samples - but to read much of the content on any platform - paper, web or phone - you need to show the colour of your money.

So it begins to look as though the Spectator has come up with a compelling new digital business model. Until, that is, you actually try the iPhone app, which is a complete dud.

First of all, you need to be online every time you want to look at the magazine. You may think you've downloaded this week's edition but if you switch to another app, then return to the Spectator, you have to wait for the page you were reading to download all over again. It's pitifully slow on a 3g network and not that much better on wi-fi.

Worse, it's just a facsimile of the paper version, and there's no easy way to search it or to jump to a particular article. After half an hour of trying to make it work, I gave up without having read a single article.

The Spectator deserves credit for trying to transform the economics of online journalism. But on the iPhone at least, it needs to go back to the drawing board.


  • Comment number 1.


    The Spectator deserves credit for trying to transform the economics of online journalism. But on the iPhone at least, it needs to go back to the drawing board.

    Yes, you are very much accurated...

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 2.

    I am truly afraid for our society.

    When information is chargeable we end up with a two tier society, comprising of the informed wealthy person and the ill informed not so wealthy people.

    This is not good for the world as a whole, well not unless you're at the top of the pyramid. We may as well go back to mediaeval times when 90% of the population could not read and write.

    I sincerely hope that "apps" like the Spectator app fail and that Mr Murdochs attempts to make "news" chargeable also fail.

    Information should be free to all.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good idea in theory and a wonder it took so long for someone to try it, at least in the mainstream but pity about the execution of it.

  • Comment number 4.

    Contrary to the earlier post, information should not and cannot be free to all. We live in a society where across many areas people have different privileges. For it to be produced, information needs to have a value so it makes it worthwhile for the creator to produce it - the value doesn't have to be monetary, but that decision is up to the creator.

    The world will never be some fluffy wonderful place where everyone has immediate equal rights to everything in it. We can't all afford the same education, have the same jobs, be as wealthy as each other etc. Information will never be free to all as there is no method of delivery that as available to everyone. The poster of the second comment is lucky enough to have a computer to log on to read this blog - many don't have that access. There is always a cost to information, whether directly or indirectly. Even if the app was free, you'd still need to be wealthy enough to own an iPhone.

  • Comment number 5.

    If someone produces a product that's perceived to be worth paying for then people will buy it; in whatever way it's delivered.

    The BBC satisfies my on line news needs, which I pay for through my TV licence.

    However it is a problem when commercial interests are lobbying to have the market rigged so that I have to pay the BBC again, at the point of delivery, for my news coverage because they can't compete.

    They should up the quality of their product to make it worth buying, not dip their hand in my pocket to compensate for their lack of a compelling product.

  • Comment number 6.

    In principal (assuming a working iphone app or web based interface) I don't have any problem with this.

    However, I suspect the model would work a lot better if instead of forcing you to pay for access to the whole magazine, you were able to just browse a list of current articles and make a micropayment of a few pence (no more than 5p) to read any that interest you. Yes people who would read the magazine from cover to cover might end up paying a bit more that way (although you could offer a discount to frequent buyers) but you would probably draw in a lot more casual readers

    My only real objection to this is the same as to subscription TV at present - if I'm paying to access the content why do I have ads forced on me?

  • Comment number 7.

    I haven't tried the app myself, but I can readily see the limitations. With regard to charging for news-I think it's a joke, & won't work-there are so many other options. In the UK, we have the BBC & this excellent website, & also the rise of citizen journalism, with sites like Wikinews, run by the same people as Wikipedia, which allows you to write the news or just read it, all for free.

  • Comment number 8.

    If people were paying that in the past for the magazine, then I should think they would pay a similar amount for it digitally. The difference with a newspaper site is that it's less specialist, and many people probably enter from aggregators like Google News

    One could argue that an iPhone app should cost less, since there is no physical object - but I suspect most people throw old issues away anyway so that probably doesn't matter cost wise.
    I subscribe to New Scientist magazine, which allows me access to their archive and the current issue online. Would I still pay for it on an iPhone app? Probably not - I look at a screen in some form of another most of my working day, and when I get home - so reading a magazine is a nice change!

  • Comment number 9.

    I agree with Blade82 above. I also subscribe to New Scientist and it's the best value subscription I have. It is also a brilliant model for an online subscription service. It offers value and content and I'm able to access the information I require in any format and at any time. Yes, even with my iPhone ;p.

    I don't object to paying for information, journalism in particular. I would object to having to pay for public service news (eg the BBC) as it is funded by the TV liscence under public charter.

    However with newspaper subscriptions, it needs to be worthwhile content, otherwise i may as well just subbscribe to a data stream straight from Reuters.

    Any App would need to be innovative and easy to use. The Telegraph App on the iPhone for instance is a little simple but it does the job, however if I was expected to pay for that, it would need to be a lot more advanced offer consistent images and offer access to archive material.

    The main issue here is that news is news, and is available in many formats and from many sources, most for free. For a pay per read or subscription service to work, it needs to address a niche audience and offer value for money.


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