Websites and iPads - which way now for newspapers?
Some newspapers are closing their websites to everyone but paying customers; and then, there's tablets, Kindles, and more. What's the future for newspaper websites?
Rupert Murdoch, the owner of (among others) The Sun and The Times, was clear in April 2010 on his thoughts about the future. "We are going to stop people like Google or Microsoft or whoever from taking stories for nothing … there is a law of copyright and they recognise it," he told an event in the US.
Murdoch's claim, many argue, is based on a falsehood. Google News doesn't "take stories for nothing": it retrieves a headline and an initial sentence from a news story, crediting the story and linking through to the original. Critics claim that Google News is actually good news for the newspapers, since it results in additional visitors. Other critics point to Google News's surprising unpopularity: it represents a fraction of Google's traffic (and doesn't appear to carry advertising). Others point to the fact that it's always been possible to remove your website from Google altogether: something that no Murdoch paper has done.
Nevertheless, in June 2010, The Times and The Sunday Times became paid-for websites, behind a so-called 'paywall'. Murdoch's "Wall Street Journal" had already moved to a pay model some years earlier, in a move that earns the newspaper around $65 million a year; Murdoch's wish is to emulate this with all his titles around the world.
Critics were divided. While the Wall Street Journal contains specialist business news and analysis which is exclusive to the newspaper, The Times is a rather more general title, containing little which is specifically exclusive. In addition, the UK landscape is significantly altered by the presence of the BBC website, which is funded by the licence-fee. Many media specialists claimed that The Times will lose almost all of its online audience.
A year behind the pay-wall, and The Times claims 101,036 subscribers, across the web, tablets, and e-readers like the Amazon Kindle. Part of this success is due to the website: but much of it, it seems, is due to subscriptions on the Apple iPad.
The iPad is a thin tablet computer which, by itself, is not a particularly game-changing product: it joins similar products that Microsoft have been building since the early 2000s. However, Apple have complete control of the device's software, and a relationship with every customer. Users can purchase apps from the device (with all billing handled by Apple), and - crucially - users can purchase subscriptions to content within apps. Delivery of news content via an app on the iPad can be monetised without users needing to find their credit card or remember another username or password; and it's this that enables an opportunity for the newspaper and magazine industry.
The Times, the publisher claims, is downloaded onto an average of 35,000 iPads every day. This points to the iPad being the significant driver of paid digital subscriptions: more significant, potentially, than the web itself.
The iPad changes where a user can consume content. It brings the internet out of the office and away from the laptop into a device that can be held anywhere: in a queue, standing on the tube, waiting for the bus. It is perfectly suited for media consumption in a way no other product has been to date.
The winners in all this may be both the publishers - relishing new, regular, income - and Apple itself. Apart from product sales, Apple also takes 30% of every sale made through the iTunes store: including newspaper subscriptions bought using the company's technology.
It could easily be that the richest media company in the world is one that, until a few years ago, was simply making music players and computers.
James Cridland is the Managing Director of Media UK, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business.
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