Friday, 6 November 2009

Thoughts on free content

You might think from the below comment about Rupert Murdoch that I am rabidly anti-News Corp and everything the Aussie media mogul stands for and produces. Well, I am… kinda. The credibility of this stance is undermined somewhat by the fact I regularly read the Times and subscribe to Sky, but until yesterday I could just about keep a handle on this confused morality. Now, though, I find myself not only enthusiastically giving Murdoch money, but agreeing with him on the biggest issue facing journalism today – whether content should be free. I say no, and so does Rupert.

In London, we’ve had two very high-profile free newspaper failures recently – thelondonpaper has been forced to close, and now the London Lite is being axed. Neither newspaper ever made a penny of profit, despite having a captive audience of around half a million every evening. The recession has hit advertising spend hard (I know this better than anyone, working as I do for a consumer magazine), but if you can’t turn a profit with the scale of readership these two titles had, then surely there is something seriously wrong with the free content model.

Online, it’s a similar story. My favourite news website, guardian.co.uk, gets huge traffic, but struggles to monetise it - and this is a situation repeated across the many excellent mainstream news websites out there. There do seem to be exceptions – the Huffington Post, for example – but even then incomes are extremely inconsistent. These websites also tend to be extremely partisan, and rely heavily on armies of unpaid writers and bloggers. They can’t offer the breadth of coverage of, say, a guardian.co.uk, because that would require a much more aggressive approach to newsgathering, which costs money.

The standard retort by free content zealots is that advertising spend will pick up come the end of the recession, and mainstream news – the dead tree press – is dying anyway. In the future people will get their news from on-the-spot bloggers and platforms like Twitter, they say. While I agree these have a part to play, they are notoriously unreliable, unaccountable and rarely offer attribution; in a word: untrustworthy.

Quality, rich and reliable content costs money – there is no getting away from it. With the proliferation of websites and only so much advertising cash to go around, the current model is unsustainable. And that’s not forgetting the ethical minefield that is relying solely on the money of third-party companies to produce a newspaper or website. Being beholden to advertisers, no matter if they share the politics of the website or paper, is no way to maintain a free and vibrant fourth estate.

So I’m with Rupert. If the websites I enjoy ask me to pay a reasonable yearly fee to read them then I’m happy to get out the credit card. It’s the responsible thing to do.

1 comment:

  1. I struggle a little bit to agree.
    So, if we go this way, are we not creating even a more gap between people with money who will have access to information, and those without money who will have to rely on twitter and ultimately get dumber?
    I am already giving Murdoch money on Sky internet, so really I should have free access to information.
    But yet again, recession brings all this extra costs that the general public have to bear on top of everything else going up.

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