The problem of how to make money from newspaper websites continued to be a discussion point in 2009 with no clear consensus reached.
Rupert Murdoch indicated his group of papers would introduce a pay wall in the future, but the tricky details remain of how payments should be charged and what additional value online readers ought to gain for parting with their money, if any.
Most agree that readers are unlikely to suddenly pay for a service they’d been used to having for free. Given that the nationals offer a broadly similar online experience, the paper that switches to fee-paying first is bound to struggle to gain paying readers to begin with. But what we may see is a gentleman’s agreement, where the nationals eventually wade into fee-paying waters together, forcing the hand of online readers.
Johnston Press led the way by trialling a £5 fee for 6 of their weeklies, but the relatively minute scale of the trial indicated the hesitancy with which they made their move. A Johnston Press editor admitted in a presentation to a group of student journalists at City College Brighton and Hove that he could see no reason why people would pay for online content when it was so easy to find the same news elsewhere for free.
The Express and Echo, an Exeter-based daily which is part of the Mail group, decided to offer the first few paragaphs of articles for free, directing readers to its paper for the full story. While in essence the format reflects the direction paid content is likely to go in (basic information for free, detailed content for paying readers) their choice would be unlikely to work nationally or internationally, where readers expect their news online to be immediate, regardless of where they may live.
2010 will be an interesting year to see the direction online journalism takes. Who knows, by next December the same debate may still rage on, with everyone still unsure about how to make newspaper websites profitable.