N is for…news

Properly and interestingly challenged by @iainmhepburn for being casually (and childishly) critical of The Times’ decision to move behind a paywall, which forced me to try to put down here why I think Murdoch’s strategy is wrong. Iain suggests that the anti-paywall approach condemns newspapers to “unsustainable losses in pursuit of some idealistic ‘all is free online’ belief”, thereby threatening the existence of quality journalism.

I don’t agree – at least, not long-term. The paywall approach is trying to protect a brand: a brand that packages a whole lot of disparate content into something called “a newspaper”. But this model simply references the idea of that package of content we called a newspaper – a concept that only makes sense in reference to the physical print world. Hence my view that the paywall approach is trying to protect a brand for the sake of it – and the danger is that the brand becomes in effect an empty one.

The dangers, it seems to me, are twofold. First, that by the operation of Gresham’s Law, the bad coinage of free content drives out the good coinage of quality journalism: that is, that we simply stop paying attention to paid-for content on the grounds that what is free is “good enough”. This is essentially the same view as the argument (which I have spent years opposing!) “Why do we need a library when we’ve all got access to Google?”. And this danger will be the greater if journalistic content, protected behind its paywalls, ceases to engage with the blogosphere. I would have doubts about tweeting or blogging a link that required my reader to pay to view the content I was referencing: and journalists, possibly contractually limited to writing behind the paywall, will themselves effectively be excluded from responding to the untrue with the truth, because the truth will be chargeable content.

Second, there is the danger that the paywall actually doesn’t protect quality in journalism. It is probably a cheap shot to ask whether we should trust the founder of Fox News to defend quality journalism, but it seems to me entirely possible that proprietors will prefer to rely on the brand’s reputation rather than investing in any actual quality standards to stake their claim to truthfulness – a reliance that may work short-term but which will inevitably erode standards over time.

In fact, these issues aren’t entirely new. The concept of “a newspaper” – a package of content bundled together under a single masthead – is determined by the means of production and distribution in a paper world rather than by its inherent logic. People have always taken what they want from that bundle, according to taste and leaning. There was a time when a surprising number of people outside the financial world took the Financial Times simply because, if I remember right, it had a well-regarded racing tipster. Personally, I rather resent paying for a Sports Supplement with every paper I buy. In other words, we already have preferences about what content we are willing to take from within the package called a “newspaper”. The brand itself is not enough to guarantee quality or interest, and if the brand, through its paywall, locks me out of finding the content that might interest me then why should I bother with it at all?

The second point about the newspaper as a package of content is that cover prices have never covered the cost of quality journalism. Print newspapers adapted to this fact in a number of ways – some by dumbing down content, or by seeking new advertising streams, or by fostering reader loyalty, or usually by some combination of these approaches. They worked, more or less, because there was a (physical) product that readers and advertisers could buy into, knowing exactly what they were going to get. But with a paywall in place, I don’t know what I’m going to get – or at least I won’t once the memory of the print product fades. And because I will lose connection to the brand, so the advertisers will lose interest in it as a space.

So no: it’s not an idealistic belief that content must be free that makes me think Murdoch’s strategy is wrong. It’s that I think in the longer-term (and perhaps not too much longer-term), it’s self-defeating: and more important (to me, though not perhaps to the Murdochs) it threatens to weaken, not strengthen, the voice of professional quality journalists among the cacophony of the blogosphere. Iain is right that I don’t have a ready answer. I’m sure the answer lies in redefining what it is to be “a newspaper”, rather than clinging to an identity that is defined by print production methods – but that’s about as far as I’m able to go. It’s a fascinating discussion to be involved in, though!

(Late note: On the “idealism” of free content, see the lovely, down-to-earth and spot-on post by @Danossira – “Get over yourselves”!)


One response to “N is for…news

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-06-28 « Fear and Loathing in Glasvegas

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