Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Paying for quality

Of all the arguments in favour of newspaper paywalls, one is utter tosh. It is that we - the readers - must pay to preserve "the best newspapers in the world".

Now, as a general rule it's always a good idea to reach for your revolver when you hear anyone say any country has the best TV/Health Service/Newspapers/Football teams ... anything "in the world".

Not because we/they don't, necessarily. But because life's more complicated than that.
But one thing we absolutely, certainly, assuredly don't have here in the UK is the best newspapers in the world. Full stop.

If we did, a quarter of those who used to buy them wouldn't have stopped doing so over the past twenty years - a desertion that long predates the web, incidentally. If we did, our press wouldn't be one of the least trusted institutions in the land and our newspaper journalists the least trusted in the world.

We wouldn't have journalists sent to prison for hacking into mobile-phone mailboxes. Nor editors fired for printing fake photographs or "setting the agenda" while, by their own admission, still drunk from the night before or admitting that they pay policemen to breach their public trust and give information to journalists.

A newspaper group wouldn't have had to pay the McCanns hundreds of thousands of pounds for quite literally making up over 100 separate defamatory articles.

Websites such as Tabloid Watch would have nothing to watch: they'd not be able to point to astonishing examples of poor journalism, like this or this or this or this We might have less of a warped obsession with celebrity.

And sites such as 'The Sun - tabloid lies' wouldn't have such a rich source of raw material.

Now, it's true that our democracy needs journalists who aren't intimidated by power. Who aren't browbeaten. Who need to be, on occasion, rude, offensive, disrespectful and bloody-minded - but, you'd have thought, as a means to and end not an end in itself.

NewsCorp argues that good journalism has to be paid for - which is true. Of course, it might help their argument if more newspaper journalism were better than it is. Worth paying for.

But beware the chopped logic here. Well-funded journalism doesn't unavoidably entail its readers paying to be let in through a turnstile to read it. Apart from anything else, readers have never been the major source of newspaper revenue. And as Alexander Lebedev has shown at the Evening Standard - and may well show with the Independent - you can give newspapers away free and still make a profit. Still fund good quality, original, investigative journalism.

Nor is paying at the door somehow morally superior to - or really very different from - other ways of paying. Like, errrr, the BBC licence fee, for example. News isn't free just because it's been paid for in advance.

The clock should have struck thirteen when News Corp's James Murdoch told his Edinburgh audience last autumn that

"Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet."

A broad attack on anyone making news by following a business model different from NewsCorp's. But flawed. The idea that news - in all its novel, invigorating, refreshing, chaotic, demotic forms - is not 'flourishing' on the web flies in the face of reality. It's news, Jim, but not as you know it. And it's flourishing.

What isn't flourishing is journalism built to fit the old model and the old mindset. Bundles of readers buying bundles of news printed on bundles of ads.

And this is the thing to watch. The terms of the debate have changed and continue to change. If we want to understand that debate, the changed world and how journalism fits in, we should take care not to allow those whose interests paywalls serve - as well as outdated understandings of what journalism is - define its terms.

1 comment:

Andy Tedd said...

Some fair points.

But the Cult of 'Free' is a position just as unworkable as Murdoch's current one. £2 he's having a laugh - but if it's 20p? It is much more honest to ask for a modest fee than to individually target readers with ads based on an email they just wrote in a completely different environment.

The debate and experimentation around micropayments has to take place in order for the market to find what the correct price-point for quality journalism is. Someone had to take a first step.

I don't see as much criticism of the Guardian for charging for their iPhone app. What's the real difference? Is it because Emily Bell does good Internet?