Under this title James Belshaw has a thoughtful post today on his Personal Reflections blog which analyses how well bloggers will fare when Rupert puts up his paywall (see here). This is a question that has been exercising my mind for some time, causing a certain amount of bemusement but no loss of sleep.
Rupert’s proposition seems to be that, in order for “quality journalism” to continue to be profitable, those of us who want to access it online should be required to pay for it. Accordingly, there should just be a headline and an opening line; to read more we would have to pay. He has already proceeded in this direction with The Times and The Sunday Times.
What does this mean for the future of blogging? As James points out, most of the quality bloggers go for the original sources anyway, so what it means for the future of blogging is – not much. Every Government Department in the English-speaking world has its major reports and its media releases on its website, as do all UN agencies and other international institutions, learned societies and other scientific institutions. In addition, many non-Anglo governments release English language versions of their reports.
I try to add value for my readers in two ways. First, by commenting directly on matters of current interest that I think I know something about, something I have had first-hand experience of in my career or have read widely or deeply upon. Secondly, I draw my readers’ attention to material by others, including other bloggers, which I feel able to evaluate and which I feel has something useful to say – effectively putting a good housekeeping seal of approval on it. If every newspaper in the world withdrew itself behind a paywall, I would still find plenty to do – there is a flood of information hitting the web every moment of the day, far more than I could ever hope to deal with. And as Rupert knows only too well, a very important part of it comes from the BBC and the ABC, and neither of them is going away. Nor are agencies like al-Jazeera.
Another reason why we can so easily live without online access to the newspapers is, as Crikey has made plain in a number of recent articles in its Spinning the Media series, a great deal of what is published in the daily newspapers has been prepackaged by organisational public relations machines, and what you read is simply the topped and tailed media release. See for example what Ben Sandilands has to say here in his contribution on 18 March 2010. He concludes:
The topping and tailing of media handouts was potential grounds for dismissal in The SMH even 20 years ago. Today it is a prerequisite for keeping a job where the prime metric is content provision.
Reporters and proprietors increasingly present themselves as providing media solutions to government, public administration and business, beginning a process that deals them out of the loop.
The PR person is increasingly the reporter.
All that really remains to be done is to give them the passwords or protocols that will allow them to directly file copy that conforms to the style rules of the AFR, SMH or The Age to the clerks that will replace what is left of sub-editing.
As for the likelihood of us having to do without access to the commercial print media, if Rupert can bring about a situation in which every quality newspaper in the world charges for online access, he will have established one of history’s great cartels. All the economics I ever read teaches me that a cartel with many members with disparate interests will break down sooner rather than later, because there will always be someone who sees his/her interest lying in breaking ranks with the cartel, thinking, for example, that if everyone is holding potential readers at bay with a paywall, I can make a killing on advertising revenue by putting my material up for free.
Finally, it is particularly odd that it is Rupert Murdoch who is leading the charge to force us to pay to read his content. I think Rupert is as interested in political power and influence as he is in profits. That is one of the reasons why it is always wise, particularly with News Limited media, to go to the original source, and find out what the person or organisation actually said, uncomplicated by the agenda of any News editor. To maintain his influence, Rupert needs readers, and he needs our political leaders to know that we are all reading his copy.
Perhaps he needs us more than we need him.