We May All End Up Paying For Paywalls

If you haven’t heard of paywalls yet, you will soon. You will also notice their effect on information if you’re interested in property – as you probably are if you read this blog.

Paywalls are ‘boundaries’ on websites preventing them being accessed without first paying a subscription. The Murdoch empire’s Times’ and Sunday Times’ websites are going ‘behind’ paywalls soon in a move being monitored by other newspapers.

Murdoch management argues – rightly – that free access to its websites means it pays the costs of some of the country’s best journalists located around the world for no return by readers who use only the (currently free) web and don’t buy the papers.

The logic is strong but does not inexorably lead to paywalls. That same logic could be used to justify stopping production of the hard copy newspaper completely (with its enormous physical infrastructure and transport costs) and instead use advertising to fund the same good quality journalism on the web only (which would have very few infrastructure costs aside from the journalists, and could then be free to readers).

But that is an argument for self-obsessed media types. What effect will paywalls have on property?

In the immediate run it will mean that the substantial online ‘debate’ about property will not really include The Times’ excellent Bricks and Mortar supplement.

‘Bricks’ is extensively quoted, and its articles shared, in websites like the useful News Now, which has several different property ‘wires’, and amongst groups of property professionals who use Twitter, Facebook and other less formal information sites.

So far, so minimal-the-impact. But what if other newspapers follow suit? The Saturday and Sunday Telegraphs, for example, are also extensively quoted; the Independent, too; more specialist publications like Investors’ Chronicle have great ‘currency’ by being shared, free, online by its own journalists.

It is by no means inconceivable that many of these will follow the Murdoch move if the upcoming Times experiment is deemed successful in revenue-raising terms. Then, if the property press has its paywalls, will other property information providers do the same.

Will we end up paying £1 for Bricks & Mortar, 50p for Hometrack’s latest report, £2 for Land Registry’s monthly figures and another quid for RICS’ monthly surveys? It soon appears obvious that fewer people will gather less information as a result.

That would be a shame, for this reason.

Since the Millennium, home ownership has turned from a necessity into a lifestyle and an obsession for many in the British population. That has been fuelled by the ease of access to information that the internet has created.

If it is no longer as easy, people will not bother. If they do not bother, interest in property will subside – and with it, much of the colour and energy of the residential industry may subside, too, if the public are less enthused than they are today.

So for that reason, let’s hope paywalls fail.

Well, not fail exactly. Let’s hope they encourage information providers of all types – creative newspapers and simple number-crunchers alike – to come up with a better way of funding property information that does not risk killing the proverbial golden goose.

(Many thanks to James Mott for suggesting this subject for my blog. James runs www.projectbook.co.uk, the UK’s leading resource centre for period and listed building projects).

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