Ian Plenderleith clicks around the web to try to decide whether the football writing on there is worth his money, or if it should remain free to all

How much would you pay to read football journalism online? It’s a question that’s taxed the media ever since the internet quickly meta­morphosed from a content free-for-all to a platform with endless commercial opportunities. Several cases illustrate the way that online content could go over the next few years.

“Journalism costs time,” wrote German blogger Jens Weinreich. “Journalism costs you energy. Journalism hurts. Journalism is fun. Journalism is exhausting. Journalism costs money.” This was part of an impassioned appeal to his readers by a freelancer whose writing has been a pain in the side of both FIFA and the German FA, in particular its slippery president Theo Zwanziger. Weinreich claimed that few other journalists were tackling the important issues covered by his blog, but that there was only so much he could do without remuneration. From now on, payment buttons would be appearing in his articles.

The response from what is clearly a loyal band of readers was largely positive, leaving aside some practical issues over the best way to transfer small sums of money. Weinreich said that several people had been exhorting him to charge for his content and that it was something he’d agonised over for a while. The problem may turn out to be the size of the gap between the pledges and the actual amount people end up paying. Promising money from the anonymity of a computer screen is much easier than ponying up – just ask Ebbsfleet United (my belated apologies to the club for never following through on my initial wild impulse to become a shareholder).

The question for Weinreich is simple – do I get paid for my work or not? For newspapers considering the option to charge for online content, it’s more a matter of balancing projected revenue from subscriptions with potential income from ads. As soon as you cut down the number of visitors to your web page by restricting content to subscribers, you slash the number of potential people to click on a side ad or a pop-up (in my case, the majority of times by accident). Let’s peruse the blog content of the Times football pages to consider objectively whether or not it would be worth a future subscription in the light of News International’s plans to start charging for access from this summer.

The first thing I read was a preview of a Glasgow derby by Scotland correspondent Graham Spiers: “This Sunday’s Old Firm match at Ibrox is awaited with utter relish. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up – for good or for ill (usually the latter) – the Rangers-Celtic spectacle is quite a sight. I’m not sure how many Old Firm games I have attended man and boy – perhaps 100? – but I still find my pulse racing at the thought of this next one.” My pulse was racing too after reading that. As Sky might say, it is most definitely The Big One.

On Oliver Kay’s blog one typical day in February you had to sleep through the first six posts before you found something that wasn’t about either Man Utd or Chelsea. Tony Cascarino’s column is about as substantial as his claim to Irish citizenship. Matt Hughes seems to write about little besides the Phallic Four, the Champions League and the England team. Only Gabriele Marcotti’s blog is, as ever, witty, incisive and highly readable. But unless they really can’t live without him, few fans will take out a newspaper subscription just to read one analyst.

The rest of the football news is, of course, available elsewhere for free and if you trawl around the hacks you’ll probably find most of the opinions too. Yet you can be sure that once the Murdoch papers start charging, every newspaper in the business will be closely monitoring how much cash they generate. “Quality journalism is not cheap,” Murdoch said last year when he made the announcement on the back of massive annual losses for his media empire. Though he didn’t quantify the costs of employing Graham Spiers.

Murdoch’s words were echoed by the New York Times, which also announced in January that it plans to charge for online content come 2011. “I think we should have done it years ago,” said David Firestone, a deputy news editor at the paper. “As painful as it will be at the beginning, we have to get rid of the notion that high-quality news comes free.” Although the revered paper rarely stoops to writing about football in its print edition, it runs a popular blog by veteran football writer Jack Bell, the kind of niche subject that could be potentially threatened by the loss of casual readers not prepared to subscribe to the whole paper (although there will be a limited number of articles free each month).

Another US publication, the long established Soccer America, has completely reversed direction. For the past nine years, its online content was only available to those subscribing to its monthly print issue. Now it has cut its print output to quarterly specials, opened up its web content and sends out its numerous daily e-letters for free. “By 2009, our subscription for the magazine and the e-letters cost $79 (£53) per year,” says executive editor Mike Woitalla. “We had a very good renewal rate by industry standards. About 80 per cent. But we found it difficult to get new subscribers. People just don’t want to pay for media nowadays.”

The idea is to make up for lost subscription income through ad revenue and Woitalla, without going into specific figures, says: “So far we are extremely pleased with this approach. Since we’ve gone ‘free’ we’ve also greatly increased the feedback on the website. And we’ve received a great response from those who let their subscriptions lapse but are now enjoying Soccer America again.”

Right now football surfers are safe from having to fork out for anything online, except the privilege of live commentary and video at an official club site. If the Murdoch model proves profitable, you can be sure all that will swiftly change and readers could face a choice between paying money to News International or, say, a feisty blogger who follows Sepp Blatter around asking awkward questions. Alternatively, as Soccer America has discovered, the web may remain too massive to make it worthwhile locking up your words.

From WSC 278 April 2010

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