Not much new for media watchers in News Limited’s announcement of its plans for a paywall at The Australian. We’ve known since mid year that it would be a “freemium” model, with some content available for nix, and some behind a paywall with holes in it — a limited number of articles being available for viewing for those who come in sideways from Google and such like.

This paywall with holes approach was first used by the New York Times, where early indications are that it is working. No surprise then, that it has become the model of choice.

If you want to know all the details of the News Limited model, then go here.

Remaining questions include how soon, or long, it will be before the metropolitan tabloids follow suit.

And, of course, whether it will all work, and what “work” will mean — nobody really knows. Most assume it means smaller audience numbers and more niche content, but hopefully on a sustainable basis. Almost nobody in the know believes that a pay model will support the dozens and dozens of journalists presently employed by our major mastheads.

Meanwhile the free content will be commoditised news available just about anywhere.

Quite possibly the future of news media in Australia will consist of half a dozen or more organisations, all employing a dozen or so journalists, and all modestly profitable. Some of these outlets will the shrunken remnants of today’s mainstream. Others will be as yet unthought of startups.

But what IS new and interesting in the moves at News Limited is the Future of Journalism site launched today. This, together with the fact that News Limited chose to brief bloggers about its plans shows a shift in thinking at News Limited. Was it really only months ago that The Australian was editorialising on bloggers as the source of all evil?

The Future of Journalism site already contains some good content — but it is not entirely altruistic. It is a mix of the kind of discussion you might find on, well, Crikey and some self interested takes on what the future might hold. For the first category, (take the stuff on the quality of journalism, and compare to Crikey’s efforts).

For the second category, have a look at the section on the impact of traditional news masthead in the digital world. According to this infographic it is not about traditional mastheads versus social media, but about symbiosis. Mainstream gets extra readers, social media gets quality content.

Which is true. I would also argue that it is not the whole story.

There is no mention, for example, of the role of social media in gatewatching, or keeping an eye on what traditional media are doing. Yet this is surely a large part of what media junkies who use Twitter find rewarding about the new medium. Hey guys, it is not only about promotions!

Nor is there any acknowledgement that social media is increasingly the source of content for mainstream, particularly when there are fast moving stories for which the people on the ground are necessarily the main informants.

While a lot of the commentary on the site is mainstream media boosterism of the we-are-really-very-good-and-you-should-know-it variety, there are also more thoughtful contributions, such as Ross Dawson’s.

One assumes that the downbeat, slightly amateurish look of the site is calculated (as in, we are not really a mega mega mega arrogant media multinational remote from the concerns of the average Tweeter).

But despite these reservations, it’s nice to see a whole mainstream media website devoted to the future of journalism. Only a few months ago, I wrote that while everyone was talking about the business models and the delivery mechanisms, almost nobody was talking about innovations in the actual practice of journalism — the core product. This is now no longer true.

There are smart people at News Limited. Some of them seem to have been given, if not their heads, then at least some slack in the reins.

Peter Fray

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