Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Murdoch is at it again.

Never one for modesty, the media giant wasn’t shy about trumpeting his latest venture last week, an iPad-only daily newspaper titled, imaginatively enough, The Daily. The interesting thing about the new news toy isn’t that it is exclusive to Apple’s popular instrument. No, what’s intriguing is that it costs money.

The Daily is one of the still-rare e-publications available only by subscription – 99 cents per day for the mildly curious or occasional article hunter, or $39.99 for those who want to take the full splash. This isn’t the first time Murdoch’s erected a paywall – last summer, he built one around his prize British property, storied and popular daily The Times – which is still being um-ed and ah-ed over.

Ever since news outlets started building paywalls, the results have been mixed. Salon became significantly less popular when it introduced a pay-for-content model, winning back readership only after it dismantling its paywall piece by piece (it is now completely free again). Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times asked online visitors to pay $4.95 per month or $39.95 annually to access its CalendarLive entertainment section. Those readers answered by not reading the LA Times; many of them found such content elsewhere, like on the free pages of rival news outlets, proving that consumers are used to getting their content for free.

On the other hand, Murdoch’s The Wall Street Journal has been a huge success in the pay-per-access game ever since introducing its paywall way back in the internet Dark Ages of 1997 (which was, incidentally, long before Murdoch got his hands on the paper). And over in London, The Times Online has built up a relatively modest but sturdy subscriber base. According to the company, there were over 100,000 subscribers to the paywall in December 2010, although this also counts readers who download versions to their Kindles or the paper’s app to their phones. Yet this isn’t a bad result for a system that, at the time, had been in place less than half a year.

It’s early days, still, so it’s hard to gauge how this paywall story will end. But early indications seem to be that it’s going the way traditional media always did – certain publications are finding their subscribers and building what looks to be a sustainable business model, and some aren’t. As ever, it seems that newspaper/magazine readers are willing to pay for their media, but only if it provides value for the information it conveys.

It’ll be interesting to see if The Daily, The Times, and other media outlets with paywalls can deliver that value and keep building a subscriber base that’s not fixated on all-content-for-free.

My free trial expires in two weeks, so I’ll let you know how that goes.

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