When the pay walls return, ‘de-monetize’ the archive

Posted on 23 August 2009

Following the $3.4bn net loss posted by News Corporation in June it would seem that Rupert Murdoch is about to tear up the free on-line content model and introduce pay access. And where the Digger goes others may well follow. Even The Guardian seems to be contemplating toll access to some types of premium content although a blanket pay wall would seem out of the question according to the paper’s Director of Digital Content, Emily Bell. Last Friday, The Los Angeles Times reported that News Corp had been in discussion with publishers ‘…including New York Times Co., Washington Post Co., Hearst Corp. and Tribune Co…’ to set up a consortium to charge for distributed on-line news content. With APN News & Media (part owned by Independent News and Media) also ‘…examining many options, including paid content, transactional and ‘club’ models’, I think it is safe to assume that this debate is ongoing in Irish publishing also.

Clearly the notion that the public will pay for online news ring fenced behind aggressive copyright control is now on the boardroom table. This change of direction must also be raising some wry smiles at the BBC. The Newstracker aggregation service was recently overhauled helping to counter claims of ‘unfair advantage’ by big media. If the links will now resolve at the pay wall, why should the BBC bother at all?

It’s been over a year since The Irish Times removed toll access to online news. The paper’s digital archive ‘from 1859 to the present’ is available yearly for €395 and via Proquest for institutional subscriptions. This model of monetizing the archive is fairly common among newspapers with both The Times (€89.95 per annum) and The Guardian and Observer (£49.95 per month) recouping on investments made in digitisation programmes. It’s a pretty crude business model that turns on using the archive (much of which is public domain) as a cash cow. Pay walling this content stifles the possibilities that a more open dissemination model would allow. Never mind the semantic web, this arrangement does not even make the Web 2.0 paddling pool. These archives also appear as stand-alone entities and not truly interoperable with the newspaper’s main online services.

If we have to pay for online news content can the argument not be made that the archive should be free to access? If the archive is more fully integrated into the primary service, then a rolling wall of say 1 day to 1 week that moves content from toll to free could be achieved and some best practice regarding Web 3.0 development retained.

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