One of the many things that happened while I was away from this blog was Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that News Corp would move to charging for news content online. There were predictable howls of outrage from those who think there is some magical right to free content online. The more sensible questions are: will it work, and how will it work.
I think it was both inevitable and necessary that someone would try a pay model for news, and Rupert is the only one who could possibly carry it off. We shouldn’t have been surprised. He had been hinting at the move for some time. Hasn’t anyone noticed that business models that involve paying for content (pay tv, book publishing etc) are growing? They may be smaller businesses than their free to air advertising dependant commodotised content competitors, but they do often offer quality and variety to a smaller audience, at a price. If Murdoch succeeds in carrying journalism into this territory then it will be his last big act of industry leadership, and those of us who earn a living from journalism will thank him.
Having said that, I think it is clear that he will be left with a much smaller, though sustainable, news business. We should remember that News Corp worldwide is no longer primarily about news. Most of its revenue comes from entertainment. The Australian arm of the empire is exceptional in still being dominated by newspapers, and comparitively conservative newspaper men.
People won’t pay for news content they can get elsewhere for free. That means that under a pay model journalists will be held to their rhetoric about providing special, compelling news. Sometimes we do, often we don’t.
The other aspect of the pay plan is that it will play out differently in different countries. In the UK and Australia, the ABC, SBS and the BBC will presumably continue to provide “cover the field” news for free, as well as some investigative journalism and quality analysis. That means that in those jurisdictions, pay walls will not work in the same way as they will in the USA. The bar will be higher for any commercial news provider who wants to make people pay for content. Anyone who wonders why News Corp and pay television companies are making public broadcasters enemy number one in the various political battles over media policy need look no further.
There is more comment on the pay wall proposal by academic Jason Wilson here. I agree with much of what he says.
Now, having said all that, I do wish the sanctimony would go out of the debate. Wilson talks about the outrage among those who think there is some God-given right to free content online. But newspapers are just as guilty of pretending this is a moral, rather than a pragmatic debate.
Last week the chairman of the industry boosting body the Newspaper Works, Brendan Hopkins, gave an address about why Google should pay money to newspapers for indexing content. The Australian reported him as saying::
“To use an analogy, I see search engines as breaking into our homes, itemising the contents, walking out and listing everything for everyone to see. And they get money out of that process….The only problem is, I don’t see any revenue being paid directly from Google, Yahoo or Microsoft in our company profit and loss accounts. This must come in the future. When their business model requires our contribution I think it is only right that publishers have an equitable position … We will be approaching (search engine proprietors) to open negotiations on this issue.
What a load of moralistic twaddle and tosh. Google isn’t breaking into anyone’s home. The newspaper companies have allowed it in – and indeed hung out a “welcome” sign, and they have done so because it suits their purposes. Google has built their site traffic.
News publishers, like everyone else online, are in control of what content they make available on the web, who can access it and at what price. There are many confidential sites, such as university data bases and subscription sites. Those who choose to lock up their content and prevent Google crawling simply add a line of code to deny permission. It is simple stuff. Read more here.
The disadvantage of locking up content is that people can’t find you unless they already know you are there. You shut yourself out of conversations. Bloggers and others can’t link to you. You make yourself into a members only club.
Now, if news organisations have decided not to lock away their content to date, that is their decision. To carry on as though Google is a thief is just plain stupid, and deceptive. Likewise, if news organisations now want to change tack and charge for content – asking people to join their clubs – they are within their rights. It is also highly likely that companies such as Google will opt to pay for the right to index and link to the content. In other words, Google might choose to be part of the club, and thus bring us all in. Whether or not the business model will work, and how it will work, we are all waiting to find out.
There are real issues about equity, access to information and sustainable models to support quality journalism involved in this debate. These are important questions.
But can we get rid of the posturing and fake morality please? On both sides?