I wrote three posts about AFR.com back in 2007. All along I have thought that the Australian Financial Review's strategy with its website has been flawed. I’m reflecting now on why the topic was so compelling for me - I think it was personal irritation at something which was making my life more difficult combined with the fascination of seeing a company absolutely determined to do a stupid thing. At the time I worked in a business school library and we worked with business case studies. I remain convinced that one day somebody will write a case study about AFR.com - as an example of how not to monetize content.
Five years on, the AFR.com approach of taking customers for granted and thumbing its nose at intermediaries (content aggregators and librarians) is finally wearing thin.
On Thursday afternoon I was attending a information session for Factiva customers*. There was a very interesting presentation from Chris Pash, Director of Content, Asia-Pacific about new Australian content which would be available on Factiva. At the end of this presentation, I asked Chris if there had been any developments on the Australian Financial Review front.
Amazingly, there has been a development. Michael Gill, who has been the champion of the AFR.com strategy, is no longer with Fairfax. There is nothing definite yet, but it seems that Fairfax may be reconsidering its prohibition of licensing the AFR full-text in aggregators such as Factiva.
I’m excited about this news because blocking the aggregators was a key component of AFR.com’s business plan. Nobody at all would pay to use an over-priced and clunky website if that content were easily available in established products which businesses and institutions were used to paying for. If Fairfax is considering this change, they could be reviewing the entire business model.
Chris Pash gave a very insightful analysis of what could be prompting this change. To paraphrase what he said, most of Factiva’s customers are from North America, and for understandable reasons they aren’t all that familiar with the Australian newspaper market. They don’t know that the AFR is the paper of record in Australian business, and so they don’t miss it at all. If they need a business story about Australia, they’re just as happy to use something other than the AFR such as the Australian or the Sydney Morning Herald or the Age. The result is that the AFR’s standing as a business newspaper is being damaged.
Here’s my take on this: The AFR has been so effective at walling off its content that it is gradually making itself irrelevant in the global market.
I don’t want to over-emphasize this development. It may not develop into anything, or if it does, it may be disappointing - if the AFR is only available in Factiva at prohibitive rates or under unreasonable conditions.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this topic. I may have one or two more posts in me about AFR.com, how in its fervour to remove all intermediaries, it alienated the large Australian companies and firms who were initially its most loyal customers. Libraries have a role in this story too. Some have gone to amazing lengths to ensure that their users would not be disadvantaged by the library’s rejection of AFR.com.