Exclusive: Guardian considering charging for “members’ club” (updated)


8:05 am - August 11th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


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Senior executives at the Guardian newspaper are considering launching a “members’ club” for newspaper readers.

The move, as you can imagine, is being considered to boost revenue at the liberal-left newspaper.

This follows Rupert Murdoch’s own plans to install paywalls across News International’s websites.

A survey sent out to registered members by the Guardian yesterday stated:

The Guardian is considering launching a members’ club which will provide extra benefits in return for an annual or monthly fee.

These benefits might include, for example, a welcome pack, exclusive content, live events, special offers from our partners and the opportunity to communicate with our journalists.

The members’ club, the survey added, would be put in place to “support the Guardian financially”.

It wanted their opinions on the “members’ club” and asked what would entice them to sign up.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Guardian is also seriously considering ending it’s system of free access to most content on its website.

This week the Financial Times also revealed it was developing a pay-per-article system for its website.

Arguments made by people such as Jeff Jarvis that paywalls “cut off your Googlejuice” are pointless. If Googlejuice can’t be monetised then there’s no point having it.

We’re entering a phase where newspapers start playing a game of chicken. If anyone stays without paywalls then they’ll disproportionately benefit from extra readers while others newspapers face reduced revenue.

But since all the newspapers are in dire straits I’m betting that they all thanked the lord when Murdoch announced his plans and immediately started exploring plans to follow him.

Will people pay? I think the Guardian is roughly on the right tracks. What the Guardian needs to sell online isn’t just content but a brand and an experience. It needs to sell a whole ‘Guardian package’ that ties in even more tightly with its values. Rather than concentrating on Googlejuice it should start focusing on creating smaller communities that people will pay to start part of. Charlie Beckett wrote something related to this recently.

It should find innovative ways to tie in services with the content. If it wasn’t already running a dating service I’d say it should have something like that – a Guardian personals subscription tied in with access to content.

After all, people subscribe to such services because they want to meet other Guardian readers not some crusty Telegraph reader types. Or even worse: someone who enthusiastically reads the Daily Mail.

You know what I mean. The Guardian has strong values and associations tied to its band. It should leverage them fully to create an online experience and tie the content with that. I bet even Americans would pay for that.

That would also make it easier for the Guardian (and News International) to overcome their biggest problem – competition from BBC Online. Expect Murdoch and even Emily Bell getting increasingly hostile to its online operations.

Update:
Emily Bell from the Guardian responds:

No – we are not contemplating a pay wall, nor as far as I’m concerned would we ever….they are a stupid idea in that they restrict audiences for largely replicable content. Murdoch no doubt will find this out – even rudimentary maths suggests he will struggle with a completely free model to meet advertising revenue levels across the NI offerings.

We are obviously looking at other methods of diversifying revenues, so this might well be where some of the confusion has arisen. I don’t know how many times or how clearly I can say we won’t be charging for content on the site, but we won’t……only six months ago we removed the last remaining paywall from web content – that around our crosswords!

Our strategy is entirely around reach and audience engagement – both if which would be irreperably damaged by pay walls.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


These benefits might include, for example, a welcome pack, exclusive content, live events, special offers from our partners and the opportunity to communicate with our journalists.

Some tat, some rubbish we won’t be putting in the main paper, some disappointing party, ooh – some more adverts, and can’t we do this on the blog already (except they never reply).

After all, people subscribe to such services because they want to meet other Guardian readers

I certainly don’t want to meet most of the CiF commenters!

Although even I like the sound of these Guardian “values”:

“Guardian Media Group lost £24m on foreign exchange derivatives last year as the slumping pound played havoc with its hedge fund investments.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/mediatechnologyandtelecoms/media/6000460/Guardian-Media-Group-loses-24m-on-foreign-exchange-derivatives.html

Tax avoidance, and now hedge funds. Wonderful!

Though I have to agree with cjcjc that a lot of CiF commenters seem to be depriving a village somewhere of its idiot, I have to say that I love trawling through the opinion pieces on CiF.

There’s a lot of good-quality content on the Guardian website, and I do use it regularly. If it became a subscription service, then I would probably be willing to take out a subscription. Okay, it’d be a shame to no longer be able to get it for free, but I’d rather pay something than see the site disappear because it’s economically unviable.

I still think they all need to come together and reach a combined deal for it to work. Like you point out:

“We’re entering a phase where newspapers start playing a game of chicken. If anyone stays without paywalls then they’ll disproportionately benefit from extra readers while others newspapers face reduced revenue.”

Surely, if all the major news publications put their heads together and offered some kind of combined deal for access, whereby a subscription would allow you to use all of the websites and view their content, it would remove the possibility of people hopping from one place to another in order to get free content – purely because they wouldn’t be able to get it free on another UK newspaper’s website.

Makes perfect sense, but execution will be everything here. Certainly it sounds like they’ve got better ideas than the New York Times on the members’ club front, but I think they could learn a thing or two from magazines (who’ve been doing this for years) and take a more focused approach. ‘Meeting other Guardian readers’? Or ‘Meeting other Guardian readers who work in the education sector and buy it for that reason’? I’d start small and scale out.

6. Alisdair Cameron

How terribly socially inclusive of them. Events, too? Dime to a dollar says they won’t be in, say, Stoke, or Hartlepool, or Dundee, or anywhere not perceived to be very accessible from Zone 1, or insufficiently chi-chi.I happen still to buy the dead-tree version (mainly for the crossword: not the same online at all), and definitely won’t fork out for such tatty ‘extras’, which I’ll also wager will not be priced at a level affordable by those for whom so many at the Guardian profess sympathy.
The Guardian will also, if it follows this route have to seriously consider the futures of the majority of its writers: it has shockingly few investigative reporters, indeed reporters of any kind, and a ludicrous plethora of talking-head columnists who delight in telling everyone else what they should be doing, while themselves doing little other than mangle the written language: far too often it is the contributions from readers which are more eloquent, better argued, less self-centred and more accurate (especially on say, statistics and their use). So,frequently, the best stuff comes from the readers to the Guardian for free, and now the paper wants to charge those readers for correcting the inadequacies of its staff?

Sounds great. I’m in.

The membership benefits should include a 24-hour members’ lounge at Kings Place where one can pick up a gilt-edged copy of the paper, regular champagne breakfasts with ministers and liberal thought-leaders and occasional invitations to the opera with Mr Rusbridger.

As for a name — Guardian Upper Class, perhaps?

All readers are equal but some are more equal than others.

@6/7 – brilliant.

They’ll be able to swap tax avoidance and hedge fund tips in that lounge too…

(Kings Place is lovely, even if it is in the middle of nowhere…)

If the Groan need some cash, they should just paywall all their Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot articles; The idea of the obsessive rightblogger horde having to pay for the article they’re about to ‘fisk’ is just too sweet.

Predictable cynicism aside, I think this is the right way to go. The core of the site should be free, but regular users can choose to pay for specialist content and features. Whether or not it will work we’ll see, but if it helps to keep the site going then it’s all for the good.

It all depends on whether the content behind the paywall is worth paying for and what the price is of course.

The very existence of the BBC website totally undermines what the Guardian, Murdoch et al are trying to achieve, which is why the BBC website should become a subscription service too.

“which is why the BBC website should become a subscription service too.”

And once that’s been done, the entire rest of the Web will have to be made subscription only as well, just to make sure the market is fair for Mr Murdoch.

“I certainly don’t want to meet most of the CiF commenters!”

why? Are trolls mutually repulsive?

It was pretty obvious that the old charging spectre was going to rise at some point – for some time now newspaper sales have been going down the pan faster than Katie Price’s knickers on a night out – cue big financial problems.

However, just because its being tried doesn’t mean its going to work. Think back a few years to when those whores from hell, the banks, tried to introduce charging for using each others cash machines. At the time everyone thought that was it, game over and goodnight, but in the end it failed because of a public revolt – in other words the customer wasn’t prepared to pay for something they’d always used for free.

The same could well – and I think will – happen here. Although I think the Guardian is offering something distinctly different from what is coming out of Murdoch’s death star (an add on bonus rather than charging for all its content), the fact is there is such a wealth of free news out there – lead by the BBC – that people wont be prepared to change their habits.

Murdoch’s statement recently about the Telegraph’s scoop on expenses being exactly the sort of story people will pay for just sums up that he’s an old news man stuck in the past. Yes it was a great story – hence why every news outlet on the planet carried it and why I didn’t need to go to the Fossilgraph to get the info.

Paul Sagar, you just made me laugh out loud, well done that man.

On a more serious note, I’d pay for the Guardian, it’s quality.

I would pay to read certain things on the Guardian- including you Sunny. I would also pay to read LC- something for you to consider.

@Paul Bradshaw

If there’s too much collusion over Paywalls then you can bet the Competition Commission will get involved…

Charlie Brooker was on about this recently, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/aug/10/charlie-brooker-iphone

I’d pay for the Guardian, er, just not too much. Price is very critical at this stage.

@14 – touche (I don’t know how to do acute accent)

@16 – you do know that it’s already possible to pay for the Guardian?!

@17 – LC could always introduce what some US sites call the “tip jar” – I contribute to a few, including eg Open Democracy, though those sites are far more “professionalised”

Sunny’s insight though is spot on – the Guardian’s news pages are no better or worse than the Times, Telegraph, FT, Indy.
The question is will people pay for the Guardian web “experience” – whatever that experience might be (let’s say self-righteous leftiness with a smidge of wannabe revolutionary) – or can they find that for free elsewhere?

Trouble is, they can find it for free elsewhere, eg here.

And certainly the list of goodies they appear to be proposing is laughable.

My question is, can the physical newspaper not survive with a much smaller website? (Or even no web presence at all?)

Alternatively, can the physical paper disappear and the “paper” go web only?

The problem with micropayments has been debated endlessly. I remember it happening in the webcomics arena, and those of you who read webcomics will notice that exactly zero of them actually use micropayments…

Penny Arcade touched on this back in, ooh, 2001:
http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2001/06/22/

I’m in favour of anything that helps hang the Murdochs out to dry when they go behind their own “paywall”.

There is a whiff of collaboration in this.

But it could be an opportunity for the Morning Star, which has recently emerged from behind its paywall, and is supported by its delightfully quaint voluntary subscription system of cheques and postal orders to their man in E5. http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php

Didn’t the Guardian website charge a fee in the past for you to get the content without pop-up ads?

Whether the Guardian ends up free or not, oddly enough, will depend primarily on what happens to the local newspaper market and to trade publishing.

GMG’s legal duty (which for most companies is to maximise profits) is to maximise readership of the Guardian. If it can continue to afford to do that by making it available for free, based on its other investments – the UK local press and its stakes in Trader Media and Emap – then it will.

It’s only if the cross-subsidy disappears, because the other media assets fail to bounce back, that the Guardian is likely to go paywalled.

My feeling is Murdoch’s misjudged this and the Guardian are fools to follow. The newspaper industry had 15 years or so to get used to the Internet and adjust their business, change or die. Looks like they’re choosing die…

This seems like an excellent, progressive idea. Instead of walling off the entirety of your content behind subscriptions or micropayments, giving readers an incentive to pay for something over and above what they already have. If they like what they get for free, a decent proportion should be prepared to shell out a couple of quid for some bonus stuff. While the welcome pack and ‘more ads from our partners!’ sounds terrible, I’d certainly be tempted by live events and exclusive content.

This is innovative and could work. It’s the absolute opposite of Murdoch’s outmoded strategy, which completely misses the point that revenue has fallen because the journalism is so poor and users have no compelling reason to remain faithful to brands like the Sun or The NotW. You can’t monetize an audience by forcing them to pay for the same drivel they’ve been ingesting free for years, you have to present something different and engaging.

This is of course just the first step; I just hope they manage to produce something worth paying for and the fees aren’t too silly. Good luck Graun.

26. Shatterface

Does this mean no links to CiF in LibCon articles? Many articles here are responses to CiF and those of us who don’t want to pay for online services won’t be able to follow the full debate.

@25 – don’t forget those hedge funds too.

Let’s hope they bounce back.

12 – “The very existence of the BBC website totally undermines what the Guardian, Murdoch et al are trying to achieve, which is why the BBC website should become a subscription service too.”

Could you talk me through the logic that because Rupert Murdoch is stuck with a business model which loses him a lot of money, therefore the government should get rid of an excellent free website which lots of people use?

I appreciate that many Tories have internalised the idea ‘what’s good for Murdoch is good for the rest of us’, but it’s not normally as blatant as this.

*

Couldn’t the Guardian save an absolute fortune by getting rid of its so-called ‘star commentators’ like Polly Toynbee and Sir Simon Jenkins, each of whom earn six figure salaries for producing a weekly article? It seems to me in my total ignorance that there are a lot of people who can produce good quality comment for free or very low cost, and where newspapers are (or should be) distinctive is in doing investigations and breaking news stories.

As #20 says, a lot of the interesting bits of the Guardian can be found here, and fortunately here doesn’t include Polly Toynbee either, which just makes it better as far as I’m concerned.

The papers are getting killed on opinion by bloggers and on investigative journalism by the BBC. I don’t see any of them surviving in their current form in 10 years.

(The solution, I think, is to become an aggregator-type clearinghouse for news and opinion through payback deals for contributors: syndicate and tag up any AP story that moves and pay for clicks, and much like CiF provide a vast blogging platform for a vetted circle of commentators that are again paid for eyeballs-on-ads. Then perhaps maintain a small staff of, say, 20, some to moderate things and a few to do some actual journalism.)

“Could you talk me through the logic that because Rupert Murdoch is stuck with a business model which loses him a lot of money, therefore the government should get rid of an excellent free website which lots of people use?”

Step 1: People stop using the BBC News website and use some other free service instead. Such as english.cctv.com

Step 2: Mumble.

Step 3: Money and ponies!

I’ve updated the article with a comment from Emily Bell, who says there may be a member’s club but no paywall. Hmmm…

I love Emily Bell’s response – it’s as if the fact that Guardian is losing tens of millions has completely passed her by.

“Other methods of diversifying revenue streams”?

Guess she’s relying on those GMG hedge funds…

Everyone’s losing millions this year – the question is whether they’re still losing millions next year. My money says not.

The Guardian itself has obviously lost millions for several years…I’m sure AutoTrader and Emap will improve.

Clearly you never get bored of repeating yourself endlessly cjcjc…

donpaskini – heh, good point.

It must be a result of my rote-learning based education!

37. Alisdair Cameron

@ donpaskini (29)
Fully agree, as I put upthread

The Guardian will also, if it follows this route have to seriously consider the futures of the majority of its writers: it has shockingly few investigative reporters, indeed reporters of any kind, and a ludicrous plethora of talking-head columnists

donpaskini:

Couldn’t the Guardian save an absolute fortune by getting rid of its so-called ’star commentators’ like Polly Toynbee and Sir Simon Jenkins, each of whom earn six figure salaries for producing a weekly article? It seems to me in my total ignorance that there are a lot of people who can produce good quality comment for free or very low cost, and where newspapers are (or should be) distinctive is in doing investigations and breaking news stories.

If you mean that they should pay good investigative reporters more and op-ed columnists less, I see your point (though in Toynbee’s case, it would simply mean she would get out and do more fieldwork). Otherwise it’s a case of: ‘Pick me, Alan! I’ll blog/comment/podcast/tap dance for food!’

Judging by the sexual fantasies they’re apt to publish, I think our bloggertarian chums would be only too eager to join up to a certain type of Guardian ‘Private Members Club’.

Don @29

We can argue about the value of the BBC website. But it is not free.

We are all compelled to pay for it.

41. Just Visiting

No-one has mentioned Wikipedia yet – but if all newspapers went private… that would make it hard to find and quote credible sources on the big wiki…

42. Alisdair Cameron

@ 43. Yes, but Wikipedia could by way of return stop journalists lifting bloody great chunks of it, often scarcely bothering to paraphrase let alone ponder the info’s validity and veracity…that would scupper q. a few papers here.

Although we all do it, it is highly problematic to cite newspaper articles and it always have been. Their primary purpose has never been to inform. In fact, people are really only THAT interested in factual information when there is money riding on it, which is why news services like Bloomberg seem to do quite well content-wise (in its limited field): http://www.bloomberg.com/?b=0&Intro=intro3

So I am not even sure if there is a “public service” that is really in danger here. Perhaps the end of newspapers will clear the way for more independent methods of investigation. But even if not, perhaps we will know more by being “informed” less.

Why not offer users a variety of ways to support the sites they value and enjoy? That’s the concept behind PayCheckr.com.

Cut of your Googlejuice? MADNESS. Just because it doesn’t put money directly in your pocket does not make it pointless. Brand awareness and distribution should not be so easily dismissed. Pay walls will (likely) work for some but the masses? I just can’t see it – the free-enie is too big to put back in the bottle.


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    The Guardian is considering charging member’s club access online: http://ow.ly/jLdI h/t @NiemanLab

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    now thats a thought – guardian members club (wont charge for content) http://bit.ly/GfKoy

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    now thats a thought – The Guardian members’ club (wont charge for content) http://bit.ly/GfKoy

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    Emily Bell vom Guaridian hält nichts von Payed Content http://tinyurl.com/mmeq36

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  8. Vadim Lavrusik

    The Guardian is considering charging member’s club access online: http://ow.ly/jLdI h/t @NiemanLab

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    now thats a thought – guardian members club (wont charge for content) http://bit.ly/GfKoy

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    now thats a thought – The Guardian members’ club (wont charge for content) http://bit.ly/GfKoy

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