Friday, August 07, 2009

Rupert Murdoch and Micropayments, a Futurology

Let me begin by apologising unreservedly for having no cartoons and illustrations here, there will be lots on the next post, to compensate; promise.

Rupert Murdoch is launching a pay-for-view model for all his newspapers, over the next few months. For me, and for many other magazine cartoonists and syndicated strip producers, it looks like an inevitable step forward, and I would imagine that particular paradigm is the way of the future. At least it is if the pay-for-view method is intended as a business-model, and not simply as a tactic employed to drive people away from the web and back to newsprint.

Of course we won't know how it will play out at first, because in order for this pay-for-view paradigm to be seen to its best effect, or its worst, every other online-newspaper has to follow suit. As Andrew Neil, a former editor of The Sunday Times, has pointed out, it is a good idea "that will work better if all the main competitors do it". That is, of course, the rub, if all the other "main competitors" do follow suit, then that at least throws up the possibility that this business model could be used as a method of coercing people back to buying print newspapers; if those newspapers were considerably cheaper than the cost of reading online. Not that I think that is the Murdoch plan, mind you, because Mister Murdoch has had a team looking at the viability of this business model for more than a year.

So, what might this mean for online newspapers? Well, that depends on what you think a newspaper is. I prefer to stick to Noam Chomsky's definition of a newspaper as 'a device to sell customers to advertisers'. It is a definition that holds true and is best illustrated with the phenomenon of the 'free newspaper', a newspaper that costs the reader nothing to buy, and is paid for by the vast amount of advertising it carries. Newspapers that are not free are simply a more refined, more demographically-targeted, and less scatter-gun, version of the same.

The Guardian online, and The Times online, and the Sun online, will all attempt to sell their usual clearly-defined demographically-pigeon-holed consumers to the advertisers they will attempt to attract to their sites - advertisers who have, bear in mind, partly as a result of the recession, stopped buying space in the print editions of these papers. So how will they do it, how will they attract the readers they need to attract the advertisers they want?

You know, this is not an easy question for the papers to answer. It used to be. If you had to picture a typical city worker, a decade or so ago, dressed in pinstripes and brogues, carrying a newspaper under his arm, you wouldn't imagine the Sun being tucked under there. You would picture a broadsheet, and the particular broadsheet might depend on his political point of view, with the more liberal reader carrying the Guardian. It was, as much as the tie they wore and whether or not their hat was worn at a rakish angle, part of their uniform, a signifier of the tribe to which they belonged. I did it myself, on the way to catch my train every day, I picked up my extended uniform of a Coke and a Guardian. On some days I had a migraine and I knew I wouldn't be reading the paper that day, but I still went ahead and bought it anyway. It was so much a part of me, that if I was racing for my train the newsagent at the station just threw my paper to me, and collected the payment the following day.

Today though, picturing the newspaper the worker surfing at home might virtually tuck under that arm, is fraught with difficulties. That percentage of the readership that collected its paper to brandish like a self-defining badge, no longer needs to do so. At home, no one can see you read, and you can get the same news from a different, a cheaper, and even a free-source of news gathering. Bear in mind that for decades now these same people have been consuming The News of the World on the QT; reading online means they no longer have to buy a broadsheet to wrap around and hide the newspaper they really want to read. It would seem though, that Rupert Murdoch's futurologists have anticipated this problem, and as a result many news items, those that are simple reportage of events, without any editorial filter or slant, will be free. It is the more 'in -depth' or specialist items, and the info' and entertainment that will be pay-for-view.

This focus on specialist items is the area that should be of most interest for cartoonists, because it means that for a newspaper to survive, and especially to prosper, it needs to house exclusive content that the reader will not mind paying for. It is unlikely that the reader will want to shell-out for 'generic', ubiquitous, comic strips like Garfield, because the reader who wants to read Garfield can get Garfield from the cheapest online source. And, with the exception of a timely Halloween or Xmas storyline, it really doesn't matter if you read Garfield's adventure today, for a penny, or with a one week delay, for free. The smart online-publications will surely realise that with every online-publication carrying the same news items, and the same gossip, the same sports features, and the same comic strips, the only way they can proclaim any individuality, that will encourage the reader to choose them, is the amount of exclusive content they provide. So, star columnists will feature heavily in the new online-publications, and so too, if the newspaper's have any sense, will exclusive comic strips and cartoons.

However, there is a danger that for two reasons the online-publications will simply be a PDF version of their counterpart in print. The first reason would be that some publishers will attempt to pay the contributors no extra payment because it is simply an exact copy of the print publication, and the second is that the people behind the online-publications are trapped in a particular mindset that imagines news in only one fixed format. Simply putting a print publication online and then tacking a comments box onto a page does not 're-imagine' the newspaper as we know it.

It is probably time for a radical rethink about what a newspaper can be, and to be honest I can't think of anyone better placed than Rupert Murdoch to define the possibilities. The Murdoch organisation has the resources, and can place news feeds, live reports, and even animation on its sites. It is probably true that the old static magazine cartoon and editorial cartoon and single-column cartoon and comic strip will have to become something else, something closer to animation, or they will cease to have a platform. If that is the case then we cartoonists will have to be prepared to meet the challenge.

To be honest I had always envisaged a publication that the advertisers would hate, if they had to advertise in it, because it wouldn't exist, except in my head. I had always figured I would mix and match my own perfect newspaper, with articles by Charlie Brooker (it is damning him with faint praise to say his writing is better than his cartooning - but it is so much better) and Caitlin Moran on modern culture, Anthony Horowitz on literature, Mathew Parris on politics and current affairs, and a comic strip series like those run recently by the New York Times (Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez, Megan Kelso, et al), but with comics by British cartoonists, or to be more precise, by me. Of course it would not be impossible to make a pick-n-mix publication because the advertisers could target me, the empirical me, not the virtual me, me the individual, not the publication. It is coming I suppose.

Rod McKie, futurologist.


It has been pointed out to me by literally hundreds of people (see earlier posts to discover exactly what that means) that I have not been as transparent as I might have been, so I'll summarise:

I see pay-for-view as an opportunity for local cartoonists in markets that have previously stopped taking cartoons or have used only syndicated work in the past. There will also still be a demand for syndicated work, though.

The paper I have always imagined allows me to 'create' my own personal publication at the point of sale. Instead of subscribing to 'The Times online', I subscribe to 'News Group' and within certain parameters I create my own newspaper with a section from here and a section from there, and featuring the contributors I want to read. And it had better have a good comics section. It is my own personal publication, so the adverts that will tag along with it help to profile me. That's the price I pay for being able to compose my own publication.

In addition, it may be that I, and the other readers who create and Arts and Media publications similar to mine, create a demand for some columnists and a lack of demand for others, even some from rival publications, so News Group can either syndicate in their material, or pay them to create more.

I suppose it goes without saying that if I don't get a good comics section and much as I love Peanuts I'm not including that, or Garfield, in mine; then I just won't be subscribing. And if we are simply talking about a PDF of a print publication, you can forget it - the www deserves better than that.


Anonymous said...

sorry to use your blog but i can't get anywhere with twitter - is that just me? i phoned but got your answering service. will be here for for fringe. yuri.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Rod McKie said...

Why thank you, Patricia. Very kind.

skarab said...

Hi Rod - Very interesting analysis of the current and future state of newspapers. The issue that is not dealt with when discussing "exclusive" content on the web as a rationale for charging money, is the hyperlinking that makes the web what it is. How to prevent the text from being copied and pasted, or merely linked, in another (free) site? And while Murdoch seems to be in the ideal position to instigate such a system, he is widely reviled here in the US because of his grabby, sensational, czaristic tendencies, and I don't even know if "czaristic" is a word! It would be *nice* if there were a better (as in more admirable) individual to carry this standard. Steve Jobs maybe? Murdoch may be forward looking but there's also the possibility that he, too, is too rooted in Ye Olde 20th Centurie and its ways to competently reinvent media for a new paradigm, which I think is what's needed.