Free content might kill journalism, but charging for content won’t work either

The web is having one of its occasional spasms about where journalism, the web, content and newspapers are going.

The internet community does this occasionally, in the same way that I sometimes have a chill of fear about climate change but swiftly forget all about it and put the kettle on.

The issue is fairly simple. Everyone cocked up the internet model of delivering content a few years ago by radically overestimating the amount of revenue the internet would generate.

Back then everyone thought the net would replace newspapers, and online ad revenue replace print ad revenue. To a significant extent it has, but it does not deliver anywhere near the revenue needed to replace that lost by print and other traditional media.

Kicking off this latest round of hand-wringing is Rupert Murdoch, who says he will start to charge for online content and Robert Picard, who says journalists need to adapt to a new world, and quickly.

The opposing view, maintained chiefly by web libertarians and social media zealots, is that everything on the internet should be free.

I don’t think either of these positions really addresses the root of the problem. The major issue is that, increasingly, consumers expect to access data, analysis, information, entertainment and services for free.

Clearly, this model is not sustainable, but the alternative is to try to return the genie to the bottle – to persuade people to go back to shelling out for quality information, media and services.

David Hepworth put it like this on his blog:

At some stage users have to start paying or watch the thing they value just drain away.

And therein lies the rub. I think this will be next to impossible in an environment where free music, film, literature and software are the norm.

iPlayer, Youtube, Spotify – all are legal and all are free, though Youtube is apparently in some financial trouble and may be forced to introduce some form of payment model.

Flickr has a premium service, but I’ve heard the Yahoo!-owned site is also losing money. If those services become pay-as-you-go or subscription there’s always Bittorrent.

No-one knows how to make these services pay for themselves, and every day they are available for free it will be harder to convince users to pay for something they’re used to getting for nothing.

I think any efforts to charge for content will be doomed to failure. The net will simply redistribute it for free, via what is now termed ‘extreme aggregation’ and used to be called copyright infringement.

The issue of copyright on the web also seems blurred these days, with so many blogs existing on repasting material from news and picture agencies, with seemingly little consideration of the legalities of the situation.

It’s simple supply and demand. And boy is there demand.

At the other extreme I don’t see how any kind of professional journalism can exist in a world where everything is consumed for free. Where will the revenue come from to pay these professional journos?

Bloggers versus journalists, new versus old, free versus paid

There’s a strange debate I’m kind of in the middle of relating to the blogger versus journalist issue – new versus old media put crudely – as I pretty much qualify as both.

This war of words is chiefly played out between the NUJ, who come off as pompous, snotty and out-of-touch and a coterie of senior bloggers and self-styled Web 2.0 evangelists, who come off as smug and over-confident.

The NUJ is getting its knickers in a twist about citizen journalism taking food off the plates of trained journalists and, as far as the NUJ are concerned, not offering anything like the same quality.

Web journalism

The most strident aspects of the blogosphere stress that newspapers and journalists need to embrace the possibilities of Web 2.0, and seem to me to hint that so-called ‘citizen’ journalism is making pro journalists redundant.

I’m very ambivalent about all of this, because I recognise the value of social media and blogging and engage with it.

On the other hand I recognise the usually superior value in professional journalism, and fear for the future of journalism without it.

This is something I expect we will only realise when all the last newspapers have disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Picard’s viewpoint doesn’t recognise the value in strong journalism, although he eventually makes some good points in a hideously waffly article – journalists need to play a part in shaping old media organisations.

Certainly, newspapers can go some way to meeting the new world by training journalists as a kind of all-in-one journalism Swiss army knife, versed in writing, subbing, online writing, coding, image editing, SEO and moving image media.

But that still doesn’t address how newspapers earn money from their content, it will simply reduce costs (and jobs) and goes some way to preparing for a multi-media consumption model.

Where the revenue comes from, especially when it becomes clear that few consumers will be willing to pay for content, is anyone’s guess.

Maybe ad revenues will pick up, maybe some miraculous new platform will figure out how to make money out of freely available content.

But I wouldn’t bet on it, and the method of delivery is rather by-the-bye. The question everyone should be asking is not how to save newspapers, but how to save journalism.

• Image by Noodlepie on Flickr via Creative Commons

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2 thoughts on “Free content might kill journalism, but charging for content won’t work either

  1. I think the move away from local newspapers is killing them and local journalism. The cult of celebrity, lifestyle and aspiration-based-consumer-editorial is killing all cogent and coherent thought in the human race. But there you go, I’m perhaps too much an optimist.

    I am lucky that I get paid to write – not a lot though! – and would like that to continue. However, the added space (no format restrictions ultimately) of online is great for affording everyone a voice.

    But in the end, quality needs to be supported if it is to survive. And that means “getting money” somehow.

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