Another set of questions from a student (based on a discussion I did on Radio 4’s Today programme with Will Hutton) which I am answering in public:
1) What is the difference between monetising content and monetising audience?
What a great question. Monetising content means selling content or, more often, a container of content. So most news organisations sell a ‘newspaper’ as much as ‘news’. Although wire services like PA sell ‘news’ and, sometimes, ‘information’, their clients ultimately re-sell that as a print package.
Monetising audience generally means advertising: you sell an audience to an advertiser, or, put another way, you sell their attention. This is the dominant business model in most publishing – for example, it is the main revenue stream for broadcast news. Printed news combines selling audience with selling packages of content, and the split varies: tabloid newspapers take a lot from sales of the actual paper, for example, whereas broadsheets make more from advertising.
There are problems for both models online: the user has already paid for the platform (web connection) so they are less willing to pay for pure content, even before you get onto issues of commodified news, digital duplication etc.
And the supply of advertising is so high it drives the price down, while control over distribution (which might drive price up) is lost.
2) Will Hutton said the future is paying for news online, do you agree?
Unless news organisations move away from commodified, cheap news towards genuinely unique and valuable journalism that manages to be well distributed on search engines and social media but not visible in its entirety or duplicatable… No.
The only way I can realistically see it happening is if a platform is invented which is as useful in the online world as a newspaper was in the physical world – and then again, you won’t be paying for news as much as you will be paying for the service of news. So the answer is still: No.
I think there’s an enormous amount of vanity among journalists who forget that people buy and bought newspapers not just for journalism but crosswords, cartoons, TV listings and indeed advertising.
3) What kind of dangers could this transition imply?
What transition? Paying for news online? I think there are enormous implications for democratic engagement and that’s why the existence of organisations like the BBC and Guardian are so important. I’d like to see Ofcom’s Local News Consortia idea do the same at a local level, but I’m sceptical.