Who’s Really Distorting The Paid Content Opportunity?

In yet another “paywalls” debate Wednesday morning, came an interesting twist on the oft-heard grumble that “free” BBC News is a barrier to news sites charging – an accusation, from a magazine publisher, that one of those newspapers itself is just as much a barrier…

Future publishing CEO Stevie Spring criticised “the commercial distortion of vanity publishing, blogs, the BBC, anybody who doesn’t have a commercial imperative”, targeting particularly her host, at Wednesday’s Changing Media Summit, The Guardian.

“The benefit for the Scott Trust of keeping that content alive in perpetuity is very distorting,” she said. “We’re setting the value higher and higher for consumer expectation.
That distortion pushes the bars up for all of us.”

The snipe was interesting since Guardian News & Media has often been amongst the several newspaper publishers to point out the supposedly distortion effect of the “free” BBC Online site, which effectively costs license fee payers £0.67 per month.

It’s an interesting theory – that, in the end, it’s not just the BBC which would-be fee-chargers must cope with; it’s the entire ecosystem of web content.

Earlier at the summit, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told delegates: “Everyone’s asking the same question as us – how do you pay for it? … I certainly don’t feel The Guardian’s the Taliban of free content. We’re about to launch a wonderful iPad app – worth waiting for, when it comes out shortly – and we’re certainly going to charge for it.”

Spring also spoke generally about her strategic thinking in approaching digital payments…

“In the digital world, when you decouple the packaging from the content, there is a distortion of value,” she said. “Our average print cover price is just over £5. In a digital context, how much people value a non-tangible, non-physical non-artefact, we are still coming to terms with.

“There’s a whole generation out there who don’t think that content is ‘free’ – they think that, once they’ve paid their broadband access, that is their library card that gives them free access to the whole of the content on the worldwide web.”

Spring said that Future’s most-downloaded free iOS app, Guitar World Lick Of The Day, had seen “conversion back to subscription is low single digits”.

Disclosure: Our publisher ContentNext is a wholly owned subsidiary of Guardian News & Media.