Not charging readers of online newspapers does seem barmy. It is damaging newsprint sales and depriving publishers of millions of pounds of revenue. Imagine a restaurant which charged customers the normal price for sitting down at a table while offering the same meals free of charge for people who came in at the back. That is the lunacy of the present situation.
Newspapers are weakening themselves editorially. Every reader who defects from newsprint to online brings in a fraction of the revenue since there is no cover price revenue online and only limited advertising revenue. Fresh online readers are worth very little. If the process of migration to the net continues, newspapers will end up with much smaller resources to spend on good journalism.
And, by the way, an online-only daily newspaper could not flourish on the web under any existing business model anyone has thought of. The Huffington Post and Tina Brown's Daily Beast have tiny editorial staffs compared to real newspapers, and it is difficult to see how they could ever be solidly profitable. For all the talk about the internet revolution, the fact is that the only proper newspapers on the net are those that spring out of newsprint.
So I am 100 per cent behind Rupert Murdoch, who said last week that he is intending to charge fees for access to part or all of his British online newspapers including The Times and The Sun. The trouble is he may not be able to do so. It is true that online readers will pay for specialised information not widely available elsewhere on the net. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times are two cases in point. But will online users pay to read about Liz Hurley's maunderings on sex and the countryside if they can access the same stuff on other websites for free?
For charging to work for publishers, it would have to apply across the board. That seems unlikely given the global and multifarious nature of the net. Some 70 per cent of the readership of the Mail Online and Guardian.co.uk is outside this country. Other British papers on the web have quite similar profiles. They are all in large measure competing internationally, and a charging regime would only thrive if dozens of outlets across the English-speaking world signed up to it. Could that ever happen?
On the domestic front there is the problem of the taxpayer-funded BBC Online, which will never charge. This is a newspaper on the net, drawing on the corporation's vast editorial resources at home and abroad, and carrying opinion pieces in the form of blogs. Will we pay for access to Rupert Murdoch's Times if we can read the BBC website for free, as well as numerous international alternatives?
Mr Murdoch may make a simple calculation. Though the online readership of The Times could easily fall by 90 per cent if he started charging, he might still make more money out of it than he does at present. But the decline in online readership is likely to be steeper as long as there are other outlets offering similar content without charging.
Maybe there is a way around the current lunacy. I certainly hope so. Until or unless someone works out how to monetise online readers in their existing numbers, newspapers will continue to weaken. Much as I would like to, I don't think charging is the big idea.
The Standard's marketing makes fools of its loyal readers
Today's relaunch of the London Evening Standard is quite an excitement. I hope its editor, Geordie Greig, and his staff do a better job than the paper's marketing department.
There are advertisements all over the capital expressing the paper's sorrow. It is "sorry" for losing touch, for "being complacent", for "being negative", for "being predictable", and "for taking you for granted". It might as well have said it is sorry for having ever existed.
This is a grotesque overreaction to its recent past, which was certainly no disgrace. It recklessly "trashes the brand". Readers of the Standard who have remained loyal may wonder why they paid 50p for a paper which its management now disowns. Incidentally, it is still largely staffed by the same journalists who produced this alleged shocker.
One journalist who served the old regime and writes for the Alexander Lebedev-owned paper is our friend Roy Greenslade. As a media commentator he has been asked for his view on the ads. I was surprised to hear him introduced on last Wednesday's Today programme as a professor of journalism without mention of his role as a Standard columnist.
Some papers would love to lose ‘only’ £10m a year
The Guardian and Media Guardian continue to have a field day at the expense of The Independent, with a fusillade of articles portraying it as a dysfunctional newspaper. Its losses, said to be around £10m a year, are constantly mentioned.
And yet last week it emerged that Times Newspapers, which publishes The Times and The Sunday Times, lost £51.3m in the year to 29 June 2008. Last Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch claimed that The Sunday Times is "still in profit, but only just so". This suggests The Times lost more than £51.3m. As the recession has deepened since last June, these losses will have increased.
Reputable authorities reckon The Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer, may be losing some £40m a year. The group's announcement last Thursday that it is planning to cut 50 editorial jobs by the end of the year was characteristically underplayed by Media Guardian.
Perhaps those boys should reread that passage in the Bible about motes and beams.
The plot of the film State Of Play has more holes than a colander, but I warmed to its romantic belief in the importance of newspapers, here represented by the fictitious "Washington Globe", in comparison with meretricious bloggers.
I felt something of the same vicarious pride when I picked up The Daily Telegraph last Friday, and read its revelations about ministers' financial shenanigans. One or two people have criticised the paper for paying for the information behind its exposure, and have alleged that some competitors declined to stump up.
Rubbish! This is the best thing the Telegraph has done for ages. Newspapers still count.