Last weekend, David Leigh made a shocking proposal in the Guardian. He proposed a £2 levy on UK broadband companies to be redistributed to news providers to save print media from extinction.
According to this Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) table in the Guardian, circulation of print media is falling and for years people have been speculating on internet journalism being the death of newspapers. It’s not rocket science — if a news provider posts all its news free of charge on the internet, why would anyone pay for an actual paper containing the same information? When The Times, a News International title, went subscribe-only for online content in July 2010, that question was put to the test. According to a BBC report in November 2010, visits to timesonline decreased by 87% after the paywall was introduced, from from 21 million unique users per month to 2.7 million.
Slightly ironically, The Times published online earlier this year an article entitled ’10 reasons to subscribe to The Times’, but seven of the reasons were to access special offers which somewhat undermines the number one reason which is to access ‘award-winning journalism for just 70p per day’.
But I digress. This post isn’t a criticism of The Times and its paywall, it’s about the rise of free online content and what it means for a politically-balanced media. Needless to say, right-wing bloggery went into overdrive at Leigh’s Guardian article — Guido Fawkes called it a ‘poll tax moment’, though it actually isn’t. As Dominic Ponsford in the New Statesman points out, it’s more of an attempt to open a debate on paying for online content, albeit with a deliberately provocative proposal as a starting point.
Redistribution of wealth
Leigh’s article does seem to have been generally misunderstood — I’ve seen a couple of forum debates which celebrate what they perceive as the decline of that ‘lefty hippy rag’ and the assumption that the Guardian is seeking a bailout because of a poor business model. In fact, the Guardian wouldn’t even profit from it as much as their rivals as Leigh’s suggestion is that the distribution of monies raised is according to the size of their web audience:
So it means already highly profitable titles like the Daily Mail and The Sun would get £100m and £50m a year respectively in order to justify highly loss-making titles like The Guardian getting their beaks wet.
Regional newspapers, doing the incredibly important job of holding local power to account, would get little – because reports of town and city council meetings are never going to drive as many web eyeballs as pictures of scantily-clad reality TV stars on the beach.
As I was also a local blogger for the area where I live, this last paragraph is of particular interest. Regional newspapers are frequently derided for publishing stories considered by anyone outside the area (and even some within it) as trivial or un-newsworthy. They already rely heavily on press releases and advertising to stay in operation while remaining relevant to the local community. The rise in hyper-local bloggers is in no small way a consequence of the decline in the local press. To give just one example, Broken Barnet has been key in forcing the local authority to be accountable to its residents, not to mention publicising the appalling behaviour of Barnet councillor Brian Coleman. A paywall on local news content could be the nail in the coffin for regional media.
The thing with content on a national and international level is that even if you decide to start charging for it, there will still be a huge number of other websites which will provide the same content for nothing because they have the financial backing to be able to afford to. Google any current story and you will see the same wording and the same quotes with only the banner and colour of the website being different. So where is the value added?
Here’s how. There are two big problems with news stories. Firstly, if you report only facts with no opinion or spin then you get the real story but unfortunately, that’s not what people want or everyone would just read Reuters. They want the condemnatory language, upskirt paparazzi and a chance to judge someone else and find them wanting. Secondly, as soon as you add that spin, it stops being a news story and starts being an opinion column. And anyone can blog about their opinion. And bloggers don’t charge for reading content. So the value-add is the spin, the opinion. How valuable is that opinion?
The question that comes after that is whether you want your own opinions challenged or reinforced. If you’re happy with a dominant online media which specialises in voyeurism, hypocrisy, fact-free churnalism, and baseless bigotry, to mention but a few, then pay-only media outlets are absolutely your bag. You can peruse near-pornographic pictures of celebs looking fat or thin in bikinis to your heart’s content for a couple of quid a month. You won’t even have to make excuses for not seeking out the real story as you regurgitate a Daily Mail rant about immigration or benefits because the other media providers will be pay only. In other words, Britain, despite apparently being bizarrely inherently socialist*, wants a right-wing media.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the freedom and the freeness of the internet. I wouldn’t be here writing this if it didn’t exist. But how long can newspapers survive on advertising before they succumb to Times-esque paywalls? And who will be Left?
* Another post for another day.