[LINK] Shirky: Murdoch's Times paywall is pretty much like all the other paywalls

Stilgherrian stil at stilgherrian.com
Thu Nov 11 10:13:08 AEDT 2010

On 11/11/2010, at 9:29 AM, Birch, Jim wrote:
> David Goldstein wrote:
>> The AFR's sales have been on a downwards spiral in recent years and
> could it be 
> a case of out of sight out of mind when newspapers are completely behind
> a 
> paywall.
> OTOH the AFR probably has a reasonable chance of making it as an online
> subscription service.  The subscription includes a 25 years archive of
> business and finance stories so is quite a valuable resource for some
> people.  Unlike your average daily: 25 years of trash.

Fairfax has been struggling with the idea of a premium news archive for more than a decade and a half, ever since they bought AUSINET from Ferntree in the mid-1990s and perhaps even before.

Fairfax had been one of several publishers pouring their news stories into AUSINET's full-text database, which was also receiving ASX company announcements and other data. It was a mainframe-based dumb-terminal command-line interface, loved or perhaps endured by librarians. It had around 500 subscribers who paid something like $3.50 a minute to connect and search via dedicated dial-up lines.

In 1995 [?] Fairfax bought it, one of several acquisitions as part of their Fairfax Digital Media operation, and waved the magic multimedia wand over it. They spent a coupe million dollars on a unix mainframe back end, into which hundreds of other publications would also be poured -- encyclopedias, magazines, more than a hundred daily newspapers. A RAID array the size of several refrigerators held ... 48GB. The back-end software was licensed from a US company, Infonautics. In early 1996 I was supervising a team of three Perl programmers who wrote the software to grab those data feeds and parse the SGML into Fairfax's version.

Meanwhile another Fairfax subsidiary was producing a "multimedia" GUI at the front end, running in that new marvel, Windows 95. A brochure, replete with screenshots of the system -- well, screenshots of the mockups, because IIRC the GUI was never actually completed -- showed how there'd be streaming video of the news as well as all this glorious text.

Fairfax imagined that high-value customers would still pay per-minute connect charges to access this system by dedicated dial-up lines. They completely missed that the internet would make the entire thing redundant as the majority of this stuff became commodity information.

They shouldn't have missed this. They were being told by Gartner and others that this is precisely what was going to happen.

They should also have noticed what Infonautics had been doing with their own software and a similar database of news and information: Launching "Homework Helper" via the internet, targetted at high school students and priced at $19.95 per month all you can eat.


As far as I know, the new tarted-up Ausinet never launched. We completed the back end, I think, but the rest of the project was killed when Fairfax needed to be seen to address some revenue problems at the time.

Over subsequent years, the database was rebranded several times. Fairfax Business Intelligence was one. They also tried selling stories individually. Fairfax continued to have an inflated idea of what old news stories were worth. For a while there they were only showing stories more recent than 6 weeks on the website, and anything older was $2 a look. Per story. Would anyone really pay $2 to see the results of a football match from six months ago?

The AFR is the only high-value material Fairfax can point to, in my opinion, and the cost model doesn't add up. While there might be people who's pay a premium price for this information, they're relatively few in number. As for the rest of the news, well, people can get access for free through their state or local library, or the NLA. Both the State Library of NSW and my local Marrickville Library offer free access to EBSCO Publishing databases, including many Australian and New Zealand newspapers -- but not the AFR -- over the internet. JUst log in with your library card number.


Stilgherrian http://stilgherrian.com/
Internet, IT and Media Consulting, Sydney, Australia
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