It took a few attempts, but media magnate, Rupert Murdoch, appears to have created his desired new orthodoxy: that newspapers charging for access to their content published on the internet is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
For readers of his UK newspapers – the Times, Sun, etc – if they want to read them online, they’ll be first met by a ‘paywall’.
And so, starting today, Johnston Press, the publisher of The Scotsman, is charging for access to the online versions of three of its local titles. With another three, it is suggesting more can be read by buying the paper.
One of the sites charging for access is Scottish: the Southern Reporter. Meanwhile, another of Johnston's Scottish newspaper sites – for the Carrick Gazette – is recommending readers purchase the paper (though, at the time of writing – Nov 30, 11.10am – access to stories on both sites still appeared to be free).
The rest of the newspaper industry will be watching, and no doubt praying, that the experiment is a success. What may emerge from the exercise are newspapers further recognising the value of sourcing exclusive content, with a corresponding reduced emphasis on using agency copy and touched-up media releases – which are often repeated across any number of titles.
It’s understood the Johnston Press sites will ask users to pay £5 for a three-month subscription to read the full articles or ask them to buy the newspapers. As well as the Southern Reporter and the Carrick Gazette, the other titles involved are the Worksop Guardian, the Ripley & Heanor News, the Whitby Gazette and the Northumberland Gazette.
Not that newspapers charging for online content is terribly new, it’s just that it has thus far been about access to ‘premium content’.
If you click on to FT.com, the website of the Financial Times, you soon find that, after having accessed two articles for free, you are then invited to register.
Already, there is a proportion of content, including opinion pieces and some features, on The Scotsman’s website that sits behind a paywall. But the majority of content on scotsman.com is free to access.
Scotsman Publications managing director, Michael Johnston, told allmediascotland.com: “Scotsman Publications has charged for premium content for some time, way prior to the Johnston Press acquisition [of it] in January 2006, and there are no specific plans at present to change this position although, as with everything, this may be reviewed.”
Also keeping their options open are the publishers of the Sunday Post, Press and Journal and Courier newspapers, DC Thomson. Says a spokesperson: “As far as paywalls are concerned, we're not ruling anything in or anything out at this stage.”
But Trinity Mirror’s group digital publishing director, David Black, reminds us that even if all newspapers were to, in concert, charge for access to their online content (and that is unlikely to happen, not least because of The Guardian’s seeming almost principled commitment to free content), there is still a huge source of free news to contend with: the BBC.
Trinity Mirror does not charge for access to its content on any of its national newspaper websites – including dailyrecord.co.uk or mirror.co.uk – or those of its network of regional newspapers: in Scotland, its Scottish & Universal titles.
Black also told allmediascotland: “We have no immediate plans to charge for content, but wouldn’t rule it out in the future. With so much content provided online by the BBC, for free, it's challenging for commercial publishers to charge for general news.
“However, that’s not say there might not be niche content that could be charged for in the future and there are models already operating that do charge, such as the FT’s premium, high-value financial information.”
And therein lies the possible paradigm shift: Not charging for access to everything, but charging for access to special, ‘members only’ content.
You are automatically a member when you buy the newspaper, you need to become one to access the site.
PS Express Newspapers replied to an allmediascotland query about its online charging plans, if any, by saying it didn't want to comment. The publisher of The Herald group of newspapers has yet to reply; ditto, the publisher of the Scottish Daily Mail.