Am I missing something in the debate about paying for online newspaper content?

Lots of folk in the media have been huffing and puffing about the fact that The Times and The Sunday Times plan to put their content behind a paywall from June.

The price of access? £2 per week. The same price as buying the print edition of a Sunday newspaper.

Bargain. Good content at a good price, and – with luck – slightly fewer unnecessary photos than the dead wood editions.

How to lose readers?

Of course, the minute the paywall goes up, the Times and The Sunday Times will shed large numbers of readers. However, if the subscriptions are high enough, there may be enough income to cover the costs of producing the online titles – and even make a profit.

What’s so wrong with that?

Quite a lot according to (amongst others) Emily Bell, editor in chief of the Guardian’s online edition.

So the challenge for the Times, and the rest of us, in a world of fragmented media is not principally to make journalism pay, but to keep it relevant. The paywall debate at heart is partly pragmatic, as the risk of implementing the strategy is high and the rewards are unknown; but also philosophical, about whether journalism is viewed as a commodity or a democratic necessity.

Jesus wept. I’d have love to have heard that argument back the in the early 90s, just before that internet thing took off. I’d have marched into my local newsagent and shoplifted a Guardian daily. If caught, I’d just tell the authorities that I hadn’t stolen the newspaper – that it wasn’t a commodity, but a democratic necessity.

The bottom line is, surely, that unless you can pay for the journalism you produce, you won’t be able to provide it free for very long. Hell’s bells, the Guardian made a pre-tax loss of nearly £90 million over 2008-2009. It has to rely on the profits made by its share in the Trader Media Group, raising the interesting possibility that environmentalist George Monbiot’s salary is paid for by profits from the Auto Trader title.

Now, I couldn’t care less how the Guardian – or any other newspaper – funds itself (well, within reason). But it’s surely much healthier for democracy if newspaper content is cheap to buy, profitable and unthreatened rather than free, uncertain and under threat.

Brand value

There’s also something else. It’s one of those awkward facts that I think holds true in the online world as well as in the real one. People don’t place as much value on what they’re given for free.

Start paying £2 for an online newspaper that was once free, and you’ll read it more carefully, more regularly and value it more. As long as the quality is good enough.

David Ogilvy once pointed out:

A steady diet of price-off promotions lowers the self-esteem in which the consumer holds the product; can anything which is always sold at a discount be desirable?

No. That’s surely what the Times newspapers are relying on. And perhaps the free online newspapers will begin to look second best after June – which, if you ask me, is what they’re really worried about.