There has been a lot of talk over the past few days about how media companies are going to charge for online content. We might soon have to pay a subscription for our favourite sites or just a few pence each time we read a story.
What is certain though is that paying for news content in the UK is coming and once one site starts charging well, they will all have to.
There are however a few problems the collective British commercial media will have to overcome in the meantime. Namely…
1 Blogs. Walled content gardens could actually spark a reniassance in blogging, especially when coupled with tools like Posterous (which works incredibly well with Twitter), as bloggers simply cut and paste (either physically or intellectually) subscription content from media sources and publish it freely.
2 The BBC. The corp is still going to offer all its content for free, so readers can still access one of the world’s premium news sources for nothing. It makes paying that few quid each month to The Guardian look a lot less appealing.
Of these two issues the BBC is obviously the one that is concentrating the minds of media barons the most. How can they possibly charge readers for online stories when a first rate news organisations is offering their content for free?
The key to this lies with the relationship between the Conservatives and the media owners, specifically Rupert Murdoch. The Tories have certainly been taking an interest in the future of the BBC. Some see it as being anti Conservative; others recognise that the way in which the BBC works, in other words what it actually does and how it needs to be funded has to change. A BBC insider told me that Conservative MPs touring the BBC and asking difficult questions have become a weekly occurrence
So here’s how the scenario could play out
Cameron needs the backing of Murdoch’s papers, especially The Sun, to secure an election victory. If the economy picks up, as it seems it might do by next May, the two main parties could be very close.
As a quid pro quo for The Sun’s support Murdoch could then insist that Cameron undertake a review of the BBC’s online activities and the impact they have on other UK media players. Pretty quickly it would find that the BBC is stifling growth in mainstream media and the corp would be forced to make changes.
In theory the government could then limit the BBC’s news activities online and even force the corporation into closing the news website.
Ok, so this all sounds a bit dramatic but there are two reasons why I think it could happen.
1 The media companies need to make money from online or else they will have to severely curtail their activities, the ad market is dire and there is no way online advertising will ever be able to fund the media organisations as they are. They have to find a new way of monetising their content. If they don’t they could die.
2 Leading Conservatives are already starting to think the unthinkable when it comes to the BBC. Ed Vaizey, the Tories’ arts and media spokesperson, has already made some suggestions about Radio 1 being spun off into the private sector. Vaizey isn’t some barking mad backbencher either, he has worked in the media for many years and is the MP for a neighbouring constituency to, you guessed it, David Cameron. The pair are apparently very close personally and politically.
Ultimately dismantling the news website of public service broadcaster sounds a very draconian and extreme thing to do. So maybe there will be a compromise. My suggestion would be for the BBC to charge for its news content just like its rivals. So a subscription or a micro payment that’s in addition to the licence fee. That would at least ensure a level playing field and bring money into the corporation. Hey the Beeb could even reduce the licence fee- which the Tories would absolutely love
Just a thought…