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Whilst the internet is an ever-expanding and eclectic resource, it would seem that one particular area is shrinking day by day – the world of free, good quality online content.
This is an issue rarely out of the papers (on and off line) at the moment, thanks to big names like Rupert Murdoch weighing in and, closer to home, founder of Manchester Confidential Mark Garner.
The news that Manchester Confidential are set to begin charging for their online restaurant reviews, articles and offers, as reported in How Do, has caused widespread outrage amongst its readership, yet ManCon’s top brass seem confident that “we're at a stage where the size, loyalty and quality of our readership is such that a significant number will be prepared to pay for the service we provide."
Further news today, reported on the BBC website, reveals that Google have struck a deal that will see them limit the number of free news resources appearing in their search results, “Users who click on more than five articles in a day may be routed to payment or registration pages.”
Falling Circulation; Falling Advertising Revenue
These are the two main reasons given for the current push to start charging for online content, with ManCon arguing that they are no longer able to “survive by relying solely on advertising revenue,” and newspapers suggesting that of course, as people stop buying their hard copy newspapers their revenues will fall; not only will they lose the money generated from the sale price, they will also lose advertisers – if no-one’s reading the thing then why advertise in it.
Thus, as newspapers lose money they will no longer be able to pay good journalists and we will end up with newspapers of a quality resembling the Metro, a hellish dystopian vision if ever I’ve heard one.
To Charge or not to Charge
On the surface the arguments for charging seem sound, at least for big name newspapers like the Guardian and the Telegraph, who already have massive readerships willing to pay every day for their newspaper.
ManCon on the other hand, who have a reported readership of “260,000 weekly readers”, will no doubt lose a massive proportion of that number – the more casual visitor. Samscam, writing in the How Do comments section, suggests that the “majority of the content (should be) free but the extra benefits and services cost a little cash - say the best of the offers.”
What is it really that ManCon offers that a simple blog couldn’t? The only thing is the offers – anyone can write a review of a restaurant and post that review online, and it doesn't have to be bad quality, look at Taste of Manchester.com. Thus it seems a sound idea that if they are intending to charge for anything it should be for access to the offers and that alone.
An Alternative to Paying for Content
The internet is free by definition. If you attempt to charge for your content your readers will migrate elsewhere and you’ll be left with no readers, no money and no advertisers.
You see, there are plenty of alternatives out there to both ManCon and the big name newspapers – Manchester has a thriving blogging culture, spearheaded by the likes of the Manchizzle and the Creative Tourist, and the internet is also home to a wealth of independent news sources like Media Lens, who have artfully shrugged off the constraints of advertising in favour of a balanced, independent and unbiased take on newsworthy events.
These sources’ priority is quality, nothing else, and it is perhaps in their favour that more and more online readers are desperately seeking high quality alternatives to the commercial and corporate media.