Clay Shirky: ‘Paywall will underperform – the numbers don’t add up’

His predictions for the fate of print media organisations have proved unnervingly accurate; 2009 would be a bloodbath for newspapers, he warned – and so it came to pass. Dozens of American newspapers closed last year, while several others, such as the Christian Science Monitor, moved their entire operation online. The business model of the traditional print newspaper, according to Shirky, is doomed; the monopoly on news it has enjoyed ever since the invention of the printing press has become an industrial dodo. Rupert Murdoch has just begun charging for online access to the Times – and Shirky is confident the experiment will fail.

“Everyone’s waiting to see what will happen with the paywall – it’s the big question. But I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don’t think the numbers add up.” But then, interestingly, he goes on, “Here’s what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they’re critical for informing their customers. We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole. OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping. He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn’t want his stories to be shared and circulated widely. In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times.”

Editorial Comment

If Murdoch wants to turn The Times Online into a wierd version of a paid for subscription only news sheet let him. The Times (aka Thunderer) made its name bringing the news to the masses, telling people news it was scared to hear but needed to know (Russell in the Crimean War) (George Steer’s report of the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War) (Robert Fisk’s reports on brutality in Northern Ireland in the 80’s) – some of the last centuries greatest work. However, as Murdoch said himself “I did not come all this way not to interfere” (ref: John Simpson ‘Unreliable Sources’ p502 Macmillan Press) – and he is doing it again. How can The Thunderer ever set the news agenda of the nation (and the world) if it is only ever read by a small fee paying elite? If it wants to make tips on the stock market then fine, sell & charge for it online. If it wants to be relevant to Britain it needs to speak to everyone

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