No more free news for all. A study how the business models of Fairfax and APN have evolved towards paywalls
The thesis critically examines how the business models of trans-Tasman media corporations Fairfax and APN evolved towards online news commodification ? paywalls ? from 2004 to 2013. The research analysis, grounded in the critical political economy of communication tradition, examines how the digitalisation of media, and financialisation of media ownership, contributed to the commodification of online news content. The research is exploratory in nature, and utilises case study, document and content analysis methods. The relevant data were mainly gathered from Fairfax?s and APN?s 2004-2013 annual reports, and other financial documents.
Digitalisation fundamentally changed the patterns of news production, consumption and delivery, and this affected APN?s and Fairfax?s print reliant business models. In 2012, their revenue structures entered crisis as their ability to commodify news substantially weakened. The companies gained in financial ownership, and this intensified their profit imperatives. As a consequence, both companies launched plans for online news commodification. In 2013, Fairfax introduced paywalls for its Australian general newspapers The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
This thesis finds that Fairfax and APN failed to transform their revenue models from a print to a digital environment from 2004 to 2013. In 2013, only 14 per cent of Fairfax?s, and three per cent of APN?s total income came from digital sources. Additionally, in 2014 only two per cent of Fairfax?s total income came from paywalls, and therefore the findings confirm that they don?t offer a viable business model for the company in the long term. There were, however, differences in APN?s and Fairfax?s paywall strategies. This suggests that multiple factors, including the size and structure of a media market need to be considered when evaluating news publishers? paywall strategies.
The thesis also evaluates how paywalls might affect the realisation of public sphere principles. The introduction of charges for online news, which had been free and universally accessible, can be seen as limiting the public?s access to news information. A content analysis of 614 stories published on the home pages of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) and the National Business Review (NBR) found that Fairfax owned afr.com had a stricter paywall than the privately owned nbr.co.nz. Approximately 86 per cent of afr.com content was locked, whereas 41 per cent of nbr.co.nz content was behind a paywall.
The most paywalled content on nbr.co.nz and afr.com consisted of opinion pieces and hard news concerning business, economics and politics. Both news sites offered greater access to technology stories suggesting that they use this content to drive traffic to their sites. From the content analysis in this thesis, it can be argued that paywalls may restrict the public?s access to more analytical content, and to content which enables them to be fully informed on issues concerning corporate affairs and politics. However, it should be noted that the two papers are targeted at a wealthy niche audience, and therefore wider impacts of paywalls on the public needs further research.
The thesis also suggests that paywalls may encourage commodification of some news content. To exemplify, nbr.co.nz offered routine stock and currency market reports for free, and they were mainly sourced from a business news wire. On the other hand, paywalls may also support some original reporting. The content analysis found that 94 per cent of the nbr.co.nz?s locked content was written by its own journalists.