Pick of the news

Will we have to pay to read newspaper websites?

Back in January when I was making New Year predictions, I wrote: “By the end of 2013 we believe paid-for content could be back on the agenda. Although many newspaper websites have vowed to remain free for users, as more people choose to get their news via free websites, this could change. Advertising on websites has not proved as lucrative as everyone hoped so the good ‘free view’ times might have to end…” Pick of the news

And as we go through 2013, the good times of clicking on newspaper websites and getting all that up to date news for free look as though they could be coming to an end.

The Times is already behind a paywall and the Telegraph recently said it too was going to be charging for some content. This prompted The Sun to say it too plans a paywall soon.

Meanwhile the biggest news website of them all – MailOnline, home of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday – was quiet. Until now. A piece in the Telegraph now reveals the Daily Mail’s chief says the company is ‘actively thinking’ about charging readers to access some of the material on its website.

Viscount Rothermere is quoted in The Telegraph as saying: “At the moment we’ve got no hard and fast plans to do anything… but we have started to look at premium content and we are trying to understand how we might find a mechanism to start charging for that.”

At Featureworld we believe that all newspaper websites will eventually charge users to access the websites. In fact, we think it’s astonishing that at a time when newspapers are struggling, so much free material is already available on the net.

The other issue is how little the information is appreciated by so many users who seem to think it is their ‘right’ to access newspaper websites, criticise them, criticise the way they write and present their stories – without a nod to the fact they are getting all of this for free.

Producing news stories and features isn’t cheap. The amount of work that goes into every single article would astound many people who wrongly believe (because they don’t have a clue) that anyone can bash out a feature, saying anything, and publish it to the masses. And with press inquiries and how the press is behaving more and more under the spotlight, the legal onus on publishers to ensure everything is absolutely accurate and has been thoroughly checked is more pressing than ever. All of this, of course, leads to higher costs (such as the legal department which checks the copy on every story on national newspapers and magazines before it is printed.)

We have all become accustomed to getting our news instantly for free on these websites. And not only news, but features, health articles, in-depth analysis and opinion pieces – many of which take hours of research to put together. That’s not to mention the ability to leave our opinions on that newspaper website (and these comments must also be moderated and checked for legal issues, which has to be done manually at a cost.)

Before news websites were so good, perhaps you were the sort of person who rarely looked a the news. But these websites can surely be credited with changing the habits of many people. You might have stopped buying your newspaper, you might have a free app and read the headlines on that, you might find it physically easier to read news on your computer than the print in a newspaper – whatever your reason, many of us have developed an ‘online habit’ of reading the news.

These days we don’t have to wait to find out what’s happening in our world. Whether we are at home, in the office, on a train or abroad on holiday, we click on these websites to get breaking news – to instantly follow stories as they unfold. It is these newly formed habits that we believe newspaper websites will, rightly given the excellent articles and news coverage you can read online from The Guardian to The Mail to The Sun, be keen to cash in on.

It might be other newspaper sites do not follow The Times mode where everything bar a couple of the first paragraphs is under a paid-for paywall. It could be you can read stories in the news or even breaking stories. But it might be that the analysis and opinion pieces – and even some photos – that so many of us love to comment on will go behind a paywall.

The alternatives are the BBC website for example (which we already fund through our licence fee) but in my view while they do have some interesting features, the simple writing lacks the depth and detail of the reporting by many national newspapers (plus the BBC hardly ever ‘breaks’ any exclusive stories itself) – so otherwise the alternative (which we can’t see many people doing) will be going back to buying your national newspaper.

It isn’t going to be a question of ‘will you pay’ to read these websites. If all of them are charging, if you don’t pay, you will be out of the loop – because while you will be able to get your basic UK headlines and foreign news from TV broadcasts (who seem to love to focus on stories abroad while you wait for them to get to the news at home) what about your celebrity gossip, latest health update, real life human interest stories or in-depth reporting on a big crime case? It is these items that are most likely to be the charged the premium rate.

And don’t think either you will be able to go on your celebrity blog to get the gossip that way. The wider ramifications are that many fashion, health and celebrity blogs thrive on simply sharing or (illegally) rehashing content from these newspaper websites. Once these items are behind a paywall, legally sharing content in this way becomes virtually impossible and so it is likely these blogs could struggle to survive.

So enjoy the fact you can nip onto MailOnline or get your gossip from The Sun or read a completely different opinion to those papers in The Guardian – because we believe the free for all as it stands at the moment is set to end very soon.

Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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