- 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.
So 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.
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