Rupert’s Campaign To Make Subscription The New Free

While Rupert Murdoch is pumping up paywalls, many in the industry are resounding in their criticism: “But consumers won’t pay for content.”

It’s clear that they are right, sort of: by and large, consumers won’t pay for content for the sites they visit as long as there is a good-enough free alternative.

But that isn’t what this is about.  In all likelihood, the brainy folks at News Corp agree too; and their point is not to fight to convince the consumer with their bold statements in the press, but to change the industry.

In fact, from all the clamor they are making, it’s been clear that the goal of their campaign isn’t even all that much about making their own strategic shift to paywalls. Instead, it looks like News Corp’s goal is to get the entire industry to do so. And they’re right to do so: let’s face it, if everyone went pay, consumers who value content significantly wouldn’t have a choice but to change their behavior.

So how would News Corp go about making paywalls pay well? If I were them, I would plan something like this:

  1. Force the conversation. Make as loud a noise as you can about going pay, and importantly, get as much press coverage as you can. Make sure that paywalls are the topic of every executive team and board level conversation in major publishers. Highlight that there must be a better way – that the industry needs a better structure than the current one.
  2. Create air cover. More importantly than just starting these conversations, give air cover to the other executives.  The best way to do it is to make huge public proclamations:  let everyone see you throw the steering wheel out the window so they know you’re not turning back.  Give executives of other companies the air cover under which they can boldly start modeling and pitching pay services without being laughed out of the room. And when they do get questioned, give them the out that, “If Rupert Murdoch is committed to this, we’d be crazy not to take a deep look at it.”
  3. Get others on board. Start working behind the scenes on bundles and alliances. Get as many other publishers on board as you can – convince them that they will have precedent from the News Corp giant to fall under. Make sure to make loud promises about timing of the change, and demonstrate that strong commitment, so no one has to worry “what if News Corp switches back to an ad model and we’re standing out there all alone?”

The goal is to get enough of the top players in the industry on board to tilt the balance to where consumers need to pay up for paywalls.

For most of the readers of this post, if you couldn’t get the bulk of the sources you read for free, would you even think twice before subscribing (as long as the rates were reasonable)? If the New York Times, CNN, TechCrunch, PaidContent, and my local paper were all behind paywalls, there is no question that I would subscribe to one (or more likely a bundle with more than one) of them.

With the right consumer offering with good value for money, and the elimination of high-quality free alternatives, it doesn’t even take much creativity to find proof points: that’s exactly the model that built the daily newspaper industry to its $50B ad expenditure peak in 2006 (NAA).

If Rupert and his team at News Corp can bang the drum loudly enough to get enough others on board, he has the chance to make subscription the new free.