Paying for news on the go...

POSTED BY Global Administrator

We are going to start paying for news again. Thus spake Rupert Murdoch at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia XVIII Conference yesterday, and when Rupert says something, it is usually worth listening to.

In the course of his speech, Murdoch confirmed that the Wall Street Journal app for the iPhone and the Blackberry will soon revert to a subscription model, whereby consumers will be charged $2 per week for the privilege; furthermore, even those customers who already subscribe to either the print or the online version will have to fork out an additional dollar per week for mobile access. (Although if you currently subscribe to both, then News Corp won’t charge you an additional cent. Gee, thanks.)

This move has been fairly well flagged, to be honest: News Corp had announced last month that it would be implementing a charging system for those wishing to access its websites, and Murdoch’s comments at Communacopia merely provided a little more detail. And, given that News Corp owns a plethora of newspaper titles worldwide – the Times, Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World in the UK, The Australian (and numerous metropolitan titles) in Australia and the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Post in the US – it is understandable that Murdoch is anxious to leverage this content and extract further value from it.

Now, mobile news subscription services are nothing new: when Japan’s Asahi Shimbun launched a news service over i-mode in 1999, it charged ¥100 (around $1) per month, and within four years has passed 1 million subscribers. That said, the world has changed: the mobile Internet is upon us, and consumers are browsing free news sites, or else downloading apps which provide one click access to them.

This is clearly a problem, and James Murdoch – chairman of News Corp’s European operations – has identified the BBC – a perpetual bête noire of his father’s – as being, if not at the root of what might be termed this news devaluation, then at least a major source of the malaise. Murdoch fils argued at the Edinburgh Festival that "The expansion of state-sponsored journalism [was] a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision,"; that free news provided by the BBC made it “incredibly difficult” for other organizations to offer a paid alternative; and that "It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it”.

Whatever the merits of the Murdochs’ arguments, it is highly unlikely that the majority of other news organizations will follow suit, simply because there is (contrary to James Murdoch’s assertion) a plurality of news providers out there, and the vast bulk of customers, seeing their way to the Times content blocked, will shrug their shoulders and surf across to the Telegraph or the Independent instead.

That said, there is indeed an opportunity here, and it lies within specialized, financial news reporting. Business customers will pay a premium for financial news and data, and many will be prepared to pay an additional mobility premium for up-to-date information and analysis. Thus, while I would be rather surprised if, say, The Times generated substantial revenues from a subscription-based mobile service consisting of general news and infotainment (I know Matthew Parris is a wonderful, witty columnist, but I have my doubts as to his marketability as a mobile premium), I am far more sanguine about the prospects for a business daily.

Like, for instance, the Wall Street Journal…