Is Murdoch mad or can paywalls promote publishing profits?

The great thing about the internet is that we can find out just about anything about just about anyone.

Facebook, Twitter and suchlike may have tapped into the voyeur in all of us, but on a more reasonable level, the web’s early moniker of the ‘information super highway’ has never been so apt.

When I started out as a journalist less than 20 years ago, if you wanted to find out about the subject you were writing about, you had to trawl libraries for hours and the nature of journalism meant that cuttings services were vital for research purposes for newspaper content.

The internet has of course changed all that and made things such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica redundant – even though Microsoft tried their own version in the form of Encarta.

If I want to know who is playing for my team on a particular matchday, when Nelson Mandela was incarcerated at Robben Island or which hotel is worth staying in for my next overseas trip, the internet can help me.

As time has gone on, newspapers have embraced the internet and added original online content not available in their printed newspapers, together with advertising and competitions that encourage more users.

But, especially with the recession squeezing advertising budgets and revenues, it has become harder and harder to monetise the internet even as a big brand.

The only thing that newspapers have is information, and there are so many outlets to get it that if one closes down or starts making its access less user-friendly, there are always others to take its place.

Rupert Murdoch has had a huge part to play in the media landscape over the past 20 years or so and he rarely gets it wrong (although the London paper was one notable mistake).

So when he announced a few months ago that he would start charging for content on his websites, everyone else sat up and took notice.

Charging £1 a day or £2 a week is actually not a huge price to pay for content, but with so many other outlets available, will the Times and Sunday Times suffer?

The titles have already accepted that they will lose a lot of readers but argue that in order to maintain journalistic standards and ensure the industry survives, this is the only option.

But the landscape is changing.

Will new revenue really mean less celebrity tittle-tattle or will it simply provide more funds to pay existing costs, with Times Newspapers said to be losing almost £2m a week?

I suspect those who expect more investment in proper journalism, more investment in staff training and more investment in the investigative stories that struggle to get funding in these days of instant news may well be disappointed.

Points of difference may be in the ‘name’ writers and columnists who current readers buy the papers for anyway rather than invest in hordes of new writers.

Any additional revenue will have to go into cutting losses while the public’s lamentable demand for throwaway news and gossip will continue.

Try teaching your audience to be interested in something else is surely a hiding to nothing, especially when you can get what you want elsewhere.

Unless all other papers follow the paywall route, won’t those left standing simply be left picking up the casual traffic that the Times has already conceded that it will lose?

A fine journalist and great friend of mine debated these very points with me today and highlighted how the music industry had to monetise its product online to have any chance of survival.

I agree with the analogy even though music is an individual talent which cannot be copied without infringing copyright or succumbing to online piracy.

Where newspapers differ is that information, unlike music, cannot be protected in the same way.

Journalism will continue to struggle, putting increased demands on writers, until a robust model for monetising print media is devised, perhaps like a Google-style clicks system that are automatically charged at a universal rate by your internet service provider.

Sadly, I don’t think paywalls are the answer.