Sunday, 28 March 2010

The great subscription firewall of Rupert Murdoch

Meanwhile, pursuing a very different business model, News International are pressing ahead with their stated intention of making the websites of The Times and The Sunday Times subscription only. While one can see the logic (apparently The Times alone makes a loss of £240,000 per day) I don't see how this is going to work out for them. The pricing is reasonable enough - £1 per day or £2 for a weekly subscription is very competitive considering the cost of the physical format itself - but it will fail for practical reasons, not financial. Quite frankly, I don't value the journalism of their papers so highly that, in the event that I want quick access to information via the internet, I'd be prepared to reach for my debit card and go through the PayPal process (or whatever method they opt for) to read their coverage. Breaking news? I'll go to the BBC, or The Guardian, thanks. Or Google News.

News International have admitted that, yes, obviously, they are going to lose millions of visitors to their sites, but are banking on a small, committed readership happy to pay for the online content. Good luck to them, but this is doomed to fail. Increasingly, our attention is drawn to news and features by the proliferation of hyperlinking: blogs, Twitter, Facebook and even old-fashioned email enable the easy embedding of links to share with other people. By building a subscription firewall, The Times and The Sunday Times are effectively removing themselves from the global conversation.

There is an argument (and a very strong one) that the future of quality journalism depends on newspapers being able to defend their revenue streams. Clearly the losses posted by The Times (and pretty much all papers) are not sustainable in the long term. We live in an age where people (particularly younger people) are so used to free, unrestrained access to news that the idea of paying for it is anathema to them. The future survival of our print media depends on finding a solution to this conundrum - but subscription firewalls aren't the answer I'm afraid.

Murdoch will soon be back to the drawing board on this one.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The death knell of the British newspaper industry?

I remember the launch of The Independent in 1986 - the same year that Eddy Shah launched his revolutionary (and now defunct) Today newspaper (Colour! Ooh! Print that doesn't come off on your hands! What witchcraft is this?). This was a tumultuous year for Fleet Street. In addition to the aforementioned new launches, it also saw Rupert Murdoch relocate his entire stable of papers to the notorious Wapping Fortress in a controversial move designed to destroy the power of the print unions.

The Independent was founded by a consortium of (mainly) ex-Daily Telegraph journalists who wanted to establish a new quality broadsheet untainted by party political affiliation intrusive proprietors. Launched with the slogan "It is. Are you?" it very quickly poached a lot of curious readers from The Guardian (whose centre-left stomping ground the Indy was trying to muscle in on), The Times and The Telegraph, reaching a peak of 400,000 copies sold daily. It's been in terminal decline ever since.

This week, after months of protracted negotiations, Independent News and Media sold both the daily and the Sunday Independent titles to Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev - the man who last year bought the London Evening Standard and immediately turned it into a freesheet, directly challenging the business model of daily newspapers head on.

The question now is: what's he going to do to the Indy? Slash the cover price to zero and give it out at train stations? Once that would have sounded utterly implausible but it could very well happen. What will this mean for the other broadsheets (and the tabloids for that matter), given that they are - almost without exception - losing readers and money in a downward spiral? Will they be forced to do the same in order to compete? What will this mean for quality journalism, which is already seen as an expensive luxury in the low-margin digital age? I can't help but worry that this is going to be very bad for British newspapers indeed. Anyone who picked up the free papers produced in London until last year (London Lite and The London Paper) could tell you how utterly awful they were. Ditto the staggeringly popular Metro given out all over the country every morning. It's a pitiful rag full of copy-and-paste reporting, feeble reviews and recycled celebrity photographs. Yet given the choice between that and actually paying for a newspaper, a very large number of commuters opt for the former. As a newspaper lover, I find it very sad that people are content to make do with this characterless, editorial-free, exercise in blandness. If The Independent takes the same route there's a danger it will be run along similar principles, taking all the other papers down with it in a race to the bottom. Sad times.

Monday, 22 March 2010

In praise of... Technology

Technology is a wonderful thing. I mean, sure, at some point in the not too distant future we are going to be enslaved by robots that turn against us and humanity will do battle with them forever more in a post-apocalyptic nightmare world. This is a given. Until then, we can enjoy the small pleasures that gadgets bring us.

My iPhone, for example, has long been an indispensable part of my life. A phone, an iPod, email, Twitter, Facebook, backgammon. I wouldn't be able to make it through the working day without it. I might do a lot more 'work', but where's the fun in that?

Anyway, this is all just a flimsy pretext to try out the new blogging application I've just downloaded (BlogPress). So here I am, in bed, writing this. Such a thing would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Marvellous.

Of course every small advancement in technology takes us ever closer to the scenario outlined above, but in the meantime let us not concern ourselves with such matters. For life is short and art is long... or something.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Reasons to hate the Catholic Church, part 4,678

It would be fair to say I have no time for religion. Actually, that's a massive understatement. It would be correct to say that I despise religion. For the lazy and child-like explanation of the world and the universe. For the slavish devotion to 'holy' texts written by people who could not possibly have had first hand experience of the events they are describing (events that almost certainly didn't happen in the first place). For the claims to have exclusive access to revealed truth. For the frequent rejection of scientific evidence and analysis. The list goes on and on. Mostly though, I hate religion (and I don't differentiate or discriminate here, they are all generally as irrelevant to me as one another, so I will continue to bundle them all up into a single word) for their claims to special status, their entitlement to 'respect' for their frequently absurd belief systems, for the reverence we should bestow upon their 'holy' leaders, no matter how undeserving of our respect they might be.

Take the pope, for example. The recent scandal surrounding the Catholic church and the covering up of the 'abuse' (a generic euphemism for what is, in fact, sexual assault and rape) of children by priests in Ireland has driven the Catholic church and the pope even further down in my estimations. Which is astonishing as I didn't know such depths even existed. The hand-wringing letter written by Pope Benedict is an execrable attempt to make amends for decades of systematic abuse and subsequent cover-up. Any claims to be 'shocked' and 'dismayed' by the revelations are empty rhetoric given that he personally oversaw the suppression of such information in a previous role. He knew about it then and he knew about it now - which makes him complicit in all of the crimes committed. God's representative on Earth aided and abetted serial abusers of children. And yet he has the temerity to state in his letter:
I can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts.
The Catholic church was already discredited. These revelations (with more to come for sure, this is not just restricted to Ireland) detail an institution that is not just ethically bankrupt but pathologically addicted to covering up its own moral decay.