Information: Have you ever paid for it?
Right now loads of media execs, from Rupert Murdoch to Alan Rusbridger, are trying to answer three basic questions: a) which readers will pay for online content; b) which content; c) how will they charge them? There is a fourth question which I will ignore for now, which is, how does the print business survive once questions a-c are answered.
Here's my own personal take on this from my own behaviour. For demographic geeks I am a 49-year-old white male who reads mainly nonfiction, has an iPod full of classical music, a Twitter and Facebook account.
I buy the Guardian and the Telegraph every day in hardcopy and the FT on certain days (see below). I buy the Speccie, the Statesman and the Economist every week and Private Eye religiously. I was the first UK TV journalist to report from inside Second Life, though my SL character (Paul Mason) has not strutted his stuff for many a year.
My LinkedIn account is moribund. I watch very little on TV apart from sport, programmes about animals or repairing tanks, and of course The Thick of It.
Here's the content I regularly buy on the internet.
1) Books. I buy nearly all my books from Amazon and Abebooks. When I am writing a book or a major project I tend to actually buy rather than go to the library since the British Library is full of teenagers chatting and reading Heat magazine. I don't buy e-books but watch this space once I get a Kindle. Probable monthly spend right now online on books = £30.
2) Music. It took me a while to stop buying CDs as iTunes is still not comprehensive for classical music and above all you need to have Opera librettoes and I have learned a lot from the little CD booklets that you can never read anywhere else. However I have not bought a CD for at least 12 months (except a Chinese migrant workers folksong CD in Beijing). Incidentally this is the new role of CDs - you buy them on trips to "analogue places" where you know you will never get the music online. Monthly spend on iTunes - probably £10 a month max, mostly from iTunes but also e-Music: but remember I have 3x decades worth of CDs on my iPod.
3) Academic articles. I am a sucker for these. Some I buy for work - the BBC's access to academic firewalled sites is remarkably scant - and some I buy for my non-work research projects. Am nearly always disappointed by the content since the sneaky info-monopolists will never tell you what is in the article before you buy it. Still, I know more than I need to about the metallurgy of Neodymium magnets. Probably spend about £12 per article, three or four times a year.
4) Newspaper archive articles. Via the BBC I have comprehensive access to recent press cuttings. But for history writing etc the New York Times and Wall Street Journal etc are precious. I think nothing of shelling out a few dollars on an account of former Fort Issy commander Edmund Megy decking a New York journalist at a "communisic banquet" on Bleecker Street in the 1870s. I will gladly go on doing this at the cost of a few dollars a time if I have to.
5) Online newspapers. Zilch. Nada. I think the only things you HAVE to read in newspapers are the following:
a) Brilliant exclusives that have not been picked up anywhere else - and that includes still photography which is still a major plus and not properly bigfooted by any broadcast website
b) Brilliant analysis pieces that your peers have read and will form the basis of watercooler discussions among your peers/contacts
c) Something that is going to give me competitive advantage in my job. Nouriel Roubini's RGE Monitor falls firmly into this category but if I actually had to pay for full access, I could not afford it.
Thus far not a single UK newspaper produces any of these things enough for me to want to pay online for them. I read every op-ed by Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf. Krugman is free on the NYT; Wolf I buy on a pink piece of paper that flaps a lot and soaks up coffee. I almost immediately bin the Companies and Markets section of the FT but keep the front bit, ripping out Martin's bit and stuffing it in my pocket. Usually, as an added bonus for my £2, there is more than just Martin Wolf: so I feel I have got a bargain. I would probably pay £2 per article for Martin Wolf online - even if Martin occasionally does not fire on all cylinders I have to read him to be able to have a sensible conversation with, say, the global chairman of a major bank, should I run into him. I should think there is an equivalent in any profession, so this is a scaleable model.
6) Uber specialist bulletins. I will usually get away with a free trial on something like RGE Monitor or Metal Pages. But if not I will pay per article rather than subscribe since these info-sources are not regularly essential.
7) The Internet. It should be borne in mind even as I surf the Guardian website or Huffpo "for free", that I am paying about £25 a month for broadband. I would probably pay more for the same service as long as it broke down less and was more secure and faster. It is still a marvel of modern business life that nearly every broadband provider on Earth has tried and failed to charge for content as well.
8) Tickets: Since I have included books I should add that my highest expenditure online for offline "information" is for theatre tickets. Obviously the tickets are a commodity but the plays/operas/musicals are content. This seems to be well in excess of £50 everytime I fork out. And that is too often for my own good.
Now to the answer to the big three questions at the top and what it means for those trying to charge for content.
The great complicating factor, as Arianna Huffington has pointed out, is that news has become "social". People want to be able to share it; its distribution models are based on sharing; so put it behind a paywall and the sharing dies. For example if I want to share with you a Youtube video it's easy. Once I want to share Martin Wolf's latest missive, difficult.
In addition, the new emperors of firewall city will not only charge. They are working out ways to prevent us from finding paid-for content on search engines like Google. News International and Microsoft are reported to be working on de-indexing content from Google.
OK my provisional answer is:
a) Who: nobody will pay for news. Only specialist news content providers will make a go of charging for news. News is commoditised. I know none of this is new but I have a new certainty about it, having thought it through. But anybody - and not just middle class high value types - will pay for content that is of high value to them.
b) What: they will pay for music, books and specialist articles; increasingly for video once watching it on a computer makes sense; also for participation in niche online games. They will pay for specialist editorial content but not news.
c) How: The charging will have to incorporate an element of BOTH micropayment AND shareability; as per iTunes vouchers or sending your mate a book via Amazon. I suspect micropayment will win out, and what would be really cool would be able to pre-pay for somebody else's access as in: look here's the clip of Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth with a bit.ly style access code that takes you right through the pay wall. Excluding your content from searchablity AND at the same time erecting a paywall sounds a bit like taking yourself out of the phone directory and for good measure having your landline disconnected.
The massive, still not properly understood, conclusion to this is that there is going to be a smaller news economy. Much smaller. News is going to have to be produced for its social value, by organisations that make their money out of selling something else. The big anomaly at present is that those who do sell that something else online - above all Google - do not pay for the news. This will probably have to change.
Anyway, discuss, bearing in mind I am the man who predicted the Internet would kill 24-hour rolling news.