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Online newspapers

By The Drum | Administrator

January 21, 2002 | 6 min read

Photography - Nick David, Photonica

Don't you hate those articles that begin "By the time you read this"? Usually the next statement is a reference to some exotic pastime out of your reach - "I'll be lying on the beach in the Seychelles", "partying in Rio de Janeiro" or "sipping a gin sling in Raffles' bar."

However, my statement is a little more mundane: by the time you read this, the line on my screen that invites me each day to read "Business a.m. essentials" will have vanished.

Not for any dramatic reason, but because that trendy Scottish business journal is shutting out non-paying customers from some of the action on its website.

In doing so, Business a.m. is simply joining in the mad scramble of publishers everywhere to do something (anything!) about their websites. Remember when newspaper sites were all the rage? Everyone had to have one, although no-one figured out the benefit of giving away for free what punters were being asked to pay for at the newsagent. Now with the bubble well and truly burst, managers in Britain and the US have been rushing in the opposite direction.

Most have concentrated on laying off staff and closing down sites. One of Richard Desmond's first acts at the Express was to shut down that paper's site. All you get of the Express now is the day's front page - too small to actually read, of course.

The Daily Mail has never put its news stories online, although those in the know click on to the 'News' button at femail.co.uk. But of course, as in the case of any panic reaction, there is a danger of throwing out the good with the bad. Just as few publishers stopped to think before leaping into the fray, few have worked out how they might finesse the online business to create a meaningful revenue stream, add lustre to the paper and keep their worldwide customers happy.

The Business a.m. message to me was pretty blunt, "From January, a.m. Essentials and certain other parts of businessam.co.uk will be available to newspaper subscribers only."

To carry on getting this well-constructed business digest, I was told I would have to take a 12-month subscription to the paper itself at a cost of £195.

For that, they would throw in other goodies, such as their new Scottish business directory (worth £29.99) and a copy of their new quarterly magazine.

Now, I am a convinced disciple of the doctrine that good journalism is worth paying for. In a different life, when I was asked to research the viability of a free newspaper in Glasgow, I asked my doctor if she had any copies of the existing frees. She went to her waste bin and produced three unopened copies. That was it for me - people only valued papers they actually bought, I decided. (Robert Maxwell launched the free Glaswegian anyway.)

The same applies in my book to information. Good information is worth paying for. After all, it costs a fortune to collect, what with those enormous and well-deserved journalistic salaries.

The only question is how much information is actually worth to the individual. For sure, the Business a.m. price at £195 is too high for me. I live in America. I don't need the printed product. And I don't want to pay for the newsprint, the ink, manning the presses and the distribution.

One can, however, get the occasional single copy of Business a.m. online by clicking Newsstand.com, an American website which is now offering to deliver you the full text of the paper's print version, complete with graphics and ads at a cost of 80p daily. The Scotsman is also offering this option, as is the New York Times and the Toronto Globe and Mail. However, I use the pompous pronoun "one" advisedly. At the moment this is only available for pc users. Mac enthusiasts like myself and many others in the media business are out of the loop.

So, I will continue to rely on the FT online, the Guardian and the Scotsman, all still free, as is the New York Times although I cannot be certain how long this bounty will last. The warning bells are already clanging.

The Daily Telegraph, which was the first British national to go online way back in 1994 with the Electronic Telegraph, is the latest to comtemplate the plunge into the murky waters of raising revenue.

The Telegraph e-mailed me the other day, as a registered online customer, with this plaintive plea, "It is clear that a business model dependent solely upon advertising revenue is not sustainable in today's difficult advertising market. Therefore, in order to continue to provide innovative and useful services, we are evaluating alternative methods of generating revenue to develop the site."

They asked me to take part in a survey (my name would go into a £500 raffle) in which the key question was just how much I would be prepared to pay for the online Telegraph. The range of options varied from £10 to £100 annually. I opted for £40, a sum that seems to give me excellent value - and them a lot more than they are getting now.

Not every publisher scrambling for savings seems to appreciate the hidden pluses of an effective website.

One of the benefits of a good online edition is that it goes to parts that other peers cannot reach. It's not all that bad a thing to have some expat in Abu Dhabi declaim to the local sheikh that what the Glasgow Herald says that morning in its leader is good advice - and should be followed. Some newspapers in the US use the website as a valuable promotional tool for the print edition, something few papers in Britain have done effectively.

If you have the Boston Globe delivered daily, that entitles you to 20 free "dips" into the newspaper's huge archive each month, normally $2.50 a throw. The sub is less than $40 so you can see that is quite a bargain. I also get discounts off theatre tickets and prints of photographs from the paper.

The best deal for me is, however, that offered by the Wall Street Journal. I get complete access to the newspaper and its archives for only $5.95 a month.

OK, it's not a lot. But would you believe that the WSJ has almost 600,000 paying online subscribers and that my little contribution multiplied by that figure 12 times a year works out at more than £30 million a year. Who says newspaper websites don't pay?

The Drum, of course, has a model website: www.thedrum.com. It tells browsers enough to let them know that something is happening, but if they want the rest of the story, they have to pay for it.

It's what's called marketing.

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