Magazine and newspaper publishers have for years been wrestling with the problem of how to profit from online content when there are so many free alternatives available, while also managing to avoid confronting it; so it was inevitable that the industry's one big beast, Rupert Murdoch, would end up being the person to take decisive action.
It's also very rare that Murdoch makes a complete howler, so News International's gamble on introducing paywalls later this month for access to The Times and Sunday Times websites should be taken seriously.
Nonetheless, it also generates an array of questions; one wonders, for example, whether the strategy (or, indeed, the pricing points at £1 a day or £2 a week) have been clearly thought through - something that is probably causing even the most sure-footed NI executives some sleepless nights.
Equally, by deciding to remove the content of both The Times and Sunday Times from search services such as Google News, NI risks them disappearing from the national debate altogether.
Bearing in mind these known unknowns and unknown unknowns, one wonders whether there isn't a Plan B in place, in case the titles have to make a tactical withdrawal.
The editor of The Sunday Times, John Witherow, has acknowledged that the vast majority of the current users of the two websites, who hitherto enjoyed free access to all their content, will be unlikely to pay.
One doomsday scenario suggests that more than 90% of users could well migrate elsewhere; it is unclear whether the numbers add up between its paying subscribers and the amount it can charge for advertising to a much smaller user base. Whether advertisers will be attracted to - or media agencies bother buying into - a tiny core of dedicated readers will become evident over a relatively short period of time.
Of course, the principle that quality journalism has a cost, and therefore a value, is a laudable one. Moreover, there is little doubt that the ubiquity of free online news has damaged media brands and their business models. However, squeezing this particular genie back in its bottle might be a task that even Murdoch will struggle to achieve.
The alternative approach, and one The Guardian is doggedly pursuing, also seems hopelessly optimistic and involves a funding gap - in this case, between paying for the creation of content and its subsequent free distribution coming from an increase in digital advertising revenue. This 'stick your head in the sand and hope for the best' line sounds simple enough, but its simplicity is its downfall.
The assumption, however, that there is an unstoppable and irreversible transition of readers from print to online, and that the existing advertising 'paper pounds' will inevitably become 'online pennies', seems at best premature and at worst nihilistic.
Associated Newspapers results released last week show that ad revenues rose - albeit by 1% - to £181m in the six months to early April; display represented £148m of this. Digital revenues were also up, but accounted for £5.4m of the total. Its free title, Metro, performed particularly strongly.
This coincided with improved results for ShortList Media, publisher of the eponymous free men's title and its sister magazine for young women, Stylist. Indeed, the company is tantalisingly close to breaking even after just two years of existence.
This appetite for free content, both for readers and advertisers, should not be lost on Murdoch.
- Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing. Read his blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk
30 SECONDS ON ... SHORTLIST MEDIA
- ShortList Media was established in 2007 to launch free magazine ShortList. The website ShortList.com went live the same year. The magazine is now the market-leading men's weekly with an ABC of 514,000.
- The company launched women's magazine Stylist last October, with the website Stylist.co.uk due to go live this summer. The magazine's debut ABC was 410,000.
- Both magazines are distributed nationwide, by hand as well as directly into some workplaces, hotels, airports and upmarket gyms.
- The privately owned company, led by founder and chief executive Mike Soutar, previously a board director at IPC and holder of senior editorial roles at Emap, claims to be the only independent to publish two weekly magazines in the UK.
- ShortList and Stylist are aimed at young, upmarket urban adults. Both achieved rapid market penetration, and the business has grown fast. New premises are being sought to more comfortably accommodate its staff.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk