The end of the free newspaper websites?

According to Rupert ­Murdoch, the days of the newspaper websites offering free content maybe over. His media empire is looking into paid for content for its news websites, which includes The Times, The Sun and The News of the World. He is encouraged by the Wall Street Journal, which is reportedly making healthy revenue from its subscription model. When Rupert Murdoch speaks, people tend to listen. He correctly predicted the market for subscription based digital TV and owns a massive media empire that wields enormous political and economic influence. But is he correct on this occasion?

Broken model

One of the reasons why the economic model for newspaper websites is "malfunctioning" (according to Rupert Murdoch) is because they do not think outside of the box. Newspapers rely heavily on traditional advertising in newspapers. Transport that to the web, and the result is old school banner advertising. Anyone who has spend anytime working in online marketing will tell you that banner advertising does not pay very well. The website publisher will normally receive a price per 1000 impressions (or clicks) and that price is often low, especially for the generalist and non-targeted audience that a newspaper will attract.

So in a sense, Murdoch is correct. That model is broken. It is broken for a generalist mainstream, non-targeted website like The Times. However if the website is highly targeted, then it is a different ball game as advertising revenues are often higher. Is a subscription based model going to be any less “broken”?

In my experience with publishers, they tend to think about the world of print publishing only. People pay for content in newspapers and magazines. But they are paying for a physical “thing” that they can hold in their hands. Asking people to pay for information that they read on a screen is an entirely different proposition. If there are free alternatives available, then people will switch with the click of a mouse. Is a reader of The Times going to pay to read The Times website if he/she can go to one of the many alternatives? Some might, but many won’t.

But hang on, the Wall Street Journal has a subscription model where people pay for content. Sure some may not pay, but plenty do and their business is booming. The difference is the Wall Street Journal is a highly respected market leader in its field. It has a target market and it is focused. The Times, on the other hand, reports the general news. People can get the news from anywhere, with or without The Time’s “editorial slant”.

One way to force people to pay for content online is for all newspaper websites to start charging at the same time. This would obviously take away the free alternatives. Or would it? What about bloggers and much smaller media operations with more dynamic revenue streams and lower overheads? They will survive and flourish by filling the void. They will take an ever bigger piece of the pie off the big newspapers and soon enough, Rubert Murdoch will declare that the subscription model is malfunctioning.


So what is the alternative to advertising and subscription models? It is already out there. Affiliate marketers use them all of the time. There is comparison shopping, voucher codes, white label solutions, revenue sharing, product reviews to name a few. Perhaps News Corporation should employ a couple of affiliate marketers to review their online strategy? Just take a look at Money Saving Expert. It is run by real journalists with real overheads. It is incredibly successful through great content, superb publicity and a healthy splattering of affiliate marketing. I am not saying that affiliate marketing is the answer. I am saying that thinking outside of the box is.

Subscription models do have a place online, for the right kind of content and the right kind of audience. I just hope that Murdoch and News Corp think laterally and look at ALL of the alternatives.


Great post. I completely agree with what you say. As somebody who has spent years and years of my life sitting infront of a computer writing articles and reviews for my content websites without making much dough for my endeavours while others raked in the money with PPC etc. I really do wish content sites could charge. But the reality is that, as you say, people will just switch to getting their content on another site.

My colleague Yagmur wrote an article about the very same subject as your blog post and came to a similar conclusion as you here:

Blair Wadman's picture

Thanks for your comment Nadeem. I will take a look at Yagmur's post shortly.

New comments for this tutorial have been turned off.