This way be dragons
Tomorrow the portcullis is slammed down on the Times and Sunday Times websites as they hunker down behind the Murdoch paywall. Watching from the sidelines will be the usual collection of Madame Defarges, aka “media commentators”, clucking away about whether this is the smartest move Rupe’s made since buying the Sun and hiring Larry Lamb, or whether the Dirty Digger’s finally lost it.
Personally, I don’t think it’s going to make much difference.
Of course, there will be revenue coming in from paid-for hits, but it’s going to take more than a fancy make-over of the website (which I quite like, BTW) to bring in the punters. Content is still king on the web as elsewhere, and quite frankly, as much as I admire the Thunderer, it’s hardly your go-to guy for the latest news or views.
You want indepth news analysis? Blimey, throw a metaphorical stone into the web and you’ll hit any number of analysts of every stripe and hue. Hell, you’ll probably hit a fair few analysts of analysts to if you skip the stone skilfully enough.
Sure, the measured, kind-but-firm-auntie tones of Matthew Parris are always a joy to read and I for one will miss the laugh-out-loud Sport on TV column of Giles Smith, but really, is anyone going to miss the hectoring Modern History student-style rants from David Aaronovitch or the I-am-seriously-kooky-y’know showboating of Caitlin Moran?
And if Murdoch Jr and Rebekah Brooks seriously think the paywall portcullis is going to be in any sense impermeable, not only have they failed Internet 101, they obviously haven’t even started Cut & Paste 101.
So my prediction is that, unless the content of both the Times and the Sunday Times is seriously beefed up and there’s a reason why anyone would pay good money to go browsing in that particular news and views marketplace, not a lot is going to happen. If others, such as the Telegraph, the Daily Mail or even the Guardian decide to go the same way, market forces will kick in and prices will fall across the board until, inevitably, some bright spark will have the idea: “I know! Let’s make the website free at point of entry!” and we’re back where we started from.
Which takes us way off to the other end of the scale, to the business plan being adopted by forbes.com (“Homepage for the World’s Business Leaders” it says here). Not only does the once-venerable American business magazine want all the viewers it can get, it wants all the content it can get – and it don’t care where it comes from.
It recently replaced its chief editor Paul Maidment with “chief product officer” Lewis Svorkin – the change of job title tells you all you need to know about the way this story is going – whose bold new online strategy is that good old (well, cheap anyway) standby, crowdsourcing.
Out goes all that fusty (and expensive) old copy tasting and editing business, picking and choosing your topics and writers to appeal to a targeted readership that will in turn appeal to advertisers; in comes, well, a lolly scramble of just about anything, really.
Forbes.com is throwing open it portal doors to thousands of contributers – unpaid, it goes without saying. And unedited, too, since Forbes is unlikely to have either the staff, technology or inclination to filter the deluge that will probably hit them. Instead of editing what goes on the site, “Forbes editors will increasingly become curators of talent”. It’s the same sort of business model that the Huffington Post works on: pay a top level of staff, but then let in the great unwashed, and unwaged, who will do it for the “experience” or “the exposure”.
Of course, not all the great unwashed who “want exposure” are exactly unwaged. As you can imagine, the PR flacks are circling, positively drooling at the thought of getting their deathless puffs unedited on a prestige site.
And it’s the prestige that’s the problem. Because if you’ve got every flack and flake writing for your site, you’re unlikely going to get the real crowd-pullers – the big name economists, the captains of industry, yer world’s actual business leaders – wanting to be seen with that shower. So what prestige you may have had heads rapidly toiletwards.
You’ve traded in your unique selling point for the ultimate stuffing point.