On the Future of Newspapers and Online Distribution
The sound and fury regarding the future of newspapers in the last couple of months has been getting ridiculous. In a speech recently, James Murdoch blamed the BBC’s “free” online news service (the BBC is funded by a license fee paid by any Brit with a TV or radio, for which I say "Thank you very much”) for the fact that he and his fellow newspaper moguls cannot work out how to afford to provide good news journalism online.
Murdoch said free news on the web provided by the BBC made it "incredibly difficult" for private news organisations to ask people to pay for their news.
"It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it," he said.
When I heard this, I had the same response I have when I hear media distribution companies blame pirate media download sites for their refusal to come up with a decent international internet broadcasting model: SHENANIGANS. IT’S PROOF OF A MARKET, PEOPLE!
Until you have actually offered your product for sale in an accessible, online form and found that no one will pay for it then you have no leg to WHINE on. Stop assuming that the world is sitting around waiting to steal from you, offer the same quality product at a decent price (people will often happily pay the same for the downloaded version of books and software, why not everything else?) and you might just be surprised at the number of people just waiting to pay you for it!
When it comes to newspapers, one of the Murdoch stable is actually attempting to do it right: The TimesOnline is offering subscription to an ePaper which is not the paper’s online site but rather:
“it is the same as the printed newspaper in the UK. The News, Sport and Business sections, and the supplements are laid out just as in the actual paper, but are also complemented by a variety of digital tools.”
THIS is what we want. The actual product as it is in hardcopy but available to us without the turning and folding and the inking of the fingers and the bashing the guy next to us on the train. And I, for one, would be happy to pay the same amount for it as the real product because I know that the price we pay for that is pretty damn good for all that journalism anyway.
But there’s the rub – we want the journalism back and I want the editorial LAYOUT, too. I want a front page that is judged to be front page-worthy by an EDITOR – not by the clickity-clicks of my fellow readers who, all due respect, might keep celebrity adoptions or anything with the word breasts in it at the top of the popularity rankings. Sure, I may disagree with the editor’s choice but that’s fine, it tells me about the publication’s journalistic priorities and bias – you know, like it always has. The internet is not some strange unknowable creature, it’s just another delivery medium - treat it as such.
“Okay,” I hear people asking, “well, the internet and 24hr news channels break stories before newspapers can so how can we possibly compete?”
No one has bought a newspaper to find out what stories are breaking since radio (no one with any sense, anyway). As I learned in this Background Briefing podcast, when television came along, the paper owners tried to hang on to the news-breaker image and managed to manipulate television into making their news broadcasts after the evening editions had gone out. Now that the internet has arrived they are trying to make a similar argument. It just does not compute.
We don’t read newspapers to be told what is happening, we read newspapers to be told WHY it’s happening, to get background information and more depth than we will get from the time broadcast news allots a story. The background information includes the opinions of people we might respect or revile which might give us a different point of view (Annabel Crabbe is unmissable on Australian politics) Depth and educated opinion THEY are the newspaper’s niche - so be the good capitalists you claim to be and LEVERAGE THAT SHIT!
I don’t blame Murdoch for being worried about asking people to pay for online newspaper content because they have poisoned their own well. When they went online they went cheap, sacking journalists, demanding more from the ones they kept while hiring more people in ad sales (and, seemingly, letting some of them write the headlines!) It was understandable but short-sighted. Actually, no, not short-sighted because that suggests that they couldn’t have offered the above (even just in a pdf format) YEARS ago. It was understandable but stupid and greedy.
And, of course, greed is the problem. The moguls don’t really care about saving journalism or they’d be doing all of the above. Like everyone else, from the twenty-something blogger in Japan who hates teaching English to the wanna-be writer who thinks he doesn’t need the big publishing houses anyway, they thought they would be able to make MASSES of revenue from content into which they could put minimal effort (read: funding) just because it was on the internet. Now they see the mistake they made (surely they have to?) and they're crying underdog.
So where to now? It’s actually kind of simple. Admit you screwed up. Brush yourselves off, rewind, go back to start and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) follow the example of the Murdoch paper The TimesOnline And if you’re a reader in Britain or follow the Times at all SUBSCRIBE – I’m even thinking of doing it just to encourage it!
If after giving it the sort of resources and time that any new venture requires to get going (sure, there’s a bit of a head start but there are also a bunch of bridges to consumer confidence which need to be built on the ashes of the old ones) THEN, if it hasn’t sold, can you jump on your soap box and lament that quality journalism doesn’t pay. But not until then.