3 Jul 2013

Big Media Can't Paywall The Public Interest

By Bronwen Clune
Fairfax journalists rally in 2012
Fairfax journalists rally in 2012

Finding a balance between financial sustainability and the public interest is the big media company's dilemma. Fairfax has just put up a paywall. Is that the answer? Bronwen Clune isn't convinced

The essence of journalism has always been to pursue truth and the public’s right to know. Given the fundamental shift that paywalls spell for media it’s worth asking whether, by locking down the news and denying open access to the public, paywalls are anti-journalism.

Buoyed by the success of the New York Times, hailed as the leader in digital subscription strategies, the commercial print media appears to have categorically decided in favor of paywalls.

In Australia, where the media is still playing out its most tumultuous year in history, the introduction of metered access at Fairfax yesterday marked the advent of paywalls, bringing it in line with similar initiatives at News Limited (recently rebranded to News Corp Australia).

Good journalism costs money. This is a fact, but paywalls are not fundamentally about creating revenue to support good journalism. It’s easy to forget that the form (news pages with ads for sale) and function (to get the news to the people) of media were never aligned.

Newspapers existed to sell advertising. Journalism was a by-product. This was a much easier fact to deny when money was flowing, because, quite frankly, it never needed discussing. But as print advertising has dried up and been drip-fed online, the uneasy relationship between what the media is and what the media does has been harder to deny.

So where does this lead paywalls in valuing journalism as opposed to adding value to news organisations? The implications are not as obvious or simple as media moguls would have us believe.

Paywalls suggest that revenues from advertising are not sufficient enough to keep news companies running as we’ve known them. But there is an important, and often overlooked distinction between news companies and journalism. News organisations need journalism, not the other way round. One does not necessarily lead to the other.

First, it’s important we understand the decision to put up paywalls as a purely an economic one, as New York Times CEO Mark Thompson told Harvard graduates recently:

“[T]he launch of the pay model is the most important and most successful business decision made by the New York Times in many years. We have around 700,000 paid digital subscribers across the company’s products so far and a new nine-figure revenue stream that is still growing.”

For now paywalls look the most likely way to breathe at least a few years into ailing media companies, but there is some evidence that profit margins are stabilising even for those who’ve made some success of them. Yes, even for the New York Times.

We’re told that content needs to be paid for, but in fact what has come to pass as the new norm, is not driven by the value of content (which is fundamental to the success of paywalls), but the value that large news organisations represent to their shareholders. It is of course a fallacy that we have always paid for content through the cover price of a newspaper, which in reality only helped cover the cost of distribution. Hindered by high overheads and the complexity of their structures, large news organisations (and we’re talking about mastheads here) remain labor-intensive empires with habits of a media past.

Clay Shirky best illustrates this in his 2010  post "The Collapse of Complex Business Models":

“To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, "It is not free, and is not going to be," Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users "just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online", and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said "Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use."

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact, that we will have to pay them, but this fact is not in fact, a fact. It is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

"Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don't know how to do that..."

News has always been judged on value. It’s a concept that dictates what is and what isn’t the news of the day. Stories with a higher news value, determined by different criteria depending on the organisation, but almost always fundamentally tied to audience relevance, traditionally got a better run in a newspaper. Contributing to this value is the notion of public interest: is it in the publics’ interest to know this? It’s basic J-school stuff.

The notion of a paywall inverts this. The theory behind a paywall, touted by parties with a vested interest, is that people will pay for good investigative pieces that are in the interests of the general population. But if information is in the interests of the general population, how is putting it behind a paywall fulfulling the role of journalism? News value no longer becomes about the importance of a story, but the monetary value that news organisations can use to justify their paywalls.

The flaw in this logic is best displayed by news organisations themselves when, at times of major breaking stories, they drop their paywalls. If important stories are free, what value does that place on those that are not?

When discussing the virtues of paywalls in relation to journalism (which is my specific concern), the most obvious is that professional journalists, that is people making a living out of the practice of journalism, need to be paid, and in order to be paid there needs to be a sustainable business model. It is mostly conceived of a notion that larger commercial news organisations will continue to be the major employers of journalists going forward, but media companies as we know them are hard to envisage into the future.

As Michael Wolff recently put it:, "the most pronounced and successful trend in online news is not adding paywalls, but providing more news with significantly fewer people".

One could argue, and many have, that paywalls only add to news organisations vulnerabilities. Revenues continue to drop and smaller independent media players (such as New Matilda and Crikey) have emerged. This is to say nothing for the ABC and now The Guardian (philanthropically supported) as viable alternatives to locked-down content.

The simple truth is, when it comes to generic news subscriptions, paywalls are about funding a very traditional way of doing things, that is supporting the economics of news companies. That we need to find a way to fund solid investigative reporting is not in dispute, but the reason we value those stories, because they are in the public interest, is at odds with locking that content behind a paywall.

We need to reframe paywalls as a journalist’s dilemma. It’s an illusion that the future of journalism is safe behind them.

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This user is a New Matilda supporter. DrGideonPolya
Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 11:19

The Murdoch media were the first put up paywalls so that people would actually have to PAY to read the lies and slies (spin-based untruths) of the Murdoch presstitutes. Now Fairfax has followed. Have they started to believe in their own lies?

The Guardian Australia is a great addition to Mainstram media in Australia (much better than Fairfax) and we currently get its  vastly better offerings for free.

The Elephant in the Room of Australian (and indeed Western) Mainstream media is the remorseless lying by omission, lying by commission and censorship. While the crucial need for "free speech" means that privately -owned media can indulge in this perversion, lying by omission, lying by commission and censorship by taxpayer-funded media like the bottom-of-the-barrel ABC and the bottom-of-the-barrel, universities-backed The Conversation  is utterly unacceptable.

For details of censorship, lying by omission and lying by commission   by media such as the global Murdoch media empire, Australian Fairfax media, the Australian ABC, the UK BBC,  and the Australian universities-backed web magazine The Conversation in Neocon American- and Zionist Imperialist-perverted and subverted Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy Australia and elsewhere in the West see “Boycott Murdoch media”: https://sites.google.com/site/boycottmurdochmedia/  ; “Censorship by the BBC”: https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbythebbc/  ; “Censorship by The Conversation”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by  ; “Mainstream media censorship”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/home  ; “Mainstream media lying”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammedialying/  ; “Censorship by The Age”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by-the-age ; “Censorship by ABC Late Night Live”: https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbyabclatenightlive/  and "Censorship by ABC Saturday Extra": https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbyabclatenightlive/censorship-by-abc-sat .

Cubby
Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 11:36

nice piece by Bronwen Clune, very interesting.

and 'Gideon Polya' needs a cup of tea and a nice sit down. 

Ian MacDougall
Posted Wednesday, July 3, 2013 - 12:14

An excellent article by Bronwen Clune.

She says:

The simple truth is... paywalls are about funding a very traditional way of doing things, that is supporting the economics of news companies. That we need to find a way to fund solid investigative reporting is not in dispute, but the reason we value those stories, because they are in the public interest, is at odds with locking that content behind a paywall.

Traditional print newspapers are very wasteful, because the purchaser only reads the stories and ads that he/she is interested in, and every reader's combination of needs and tastes is unique.

When done electronically, all this waste is avoided. But traditional print was always about selling ad space to advertisers. The journalism was what attracted buyers to the ads; it was the stuff the editors put in between the ads. 

The trouble with paywalls (and the reason I avoid them) is that the Net allows one to cruise the world, reading a lot here, a bit there, and a bit somewhere else. Moreover, print media companies in Australia are in a bind because if they do not give the news free to their readers, those readers can always get it free from the ABC. Hence the eagerness of the likes of Tony Abbott and knuckle-dragging market fundamentalist outfits like the IPA to break up the ABC and sell it off.

But the ABC is a lighthouse for all: even Murdoch. An imaginative federal government could give it a new role as a place where any and all journalists could go to post their stories, and be paid for them (out of the public purse) in proportion to the number of readers they attracted. Those of us who pay taxes (and this does not include all Australians who have the money to do so) already fund the ABC. The additional cost would not be trivial, but would certainly be no great imposition. (Remember '8c per day'?)

The trouble with paywalls is that the site selling the stories has to have a massive collection and accounting operation to deal with the money reluctantly fed into it in dribs and drabs by readers. I for one am reluctant to give my credit card details to any of the sites I visit, including NM. (Sorry, NM.)

I would like to see this offered as policy by one of the parties in the forthcoming election. One of its great strengths would be its potential to get journaists, as distinct from the media barons, on side with the party adopting it. (Sorry, media barons.)

Journalists are vital to democracy, but the present way of employing them and paying them is broken. The ABC sites could be the way forward, but only if the aforesaid knuckle draggers can be kept from destroying them.

phoneyid
Posted Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 01:09

The only thing the MS news has to offer is media credentials; affording them the privileged of getting in to a press conference to ask the pollies those "hard questions", which they've proven not to do time and again.

"Good journalism costs money"
You state that as a fact, a certainty, but it doesn't.
I'd argue that the big media is not "good journalism"
To get to the truth, a reader is compelled to read through a mass of interviews, quotes etc in a multitude of publications to gain a line or a sentence here or a word or number there, whereas I can simply read some of those I have determined over time to be my trusted bloggers who have cut through all the BS for me and put it all together in analysis to expose the big picture.

You might once have said, with equal credibility, "Good encyclopedias costs money" pointing to Britanica or Encarta, but today there's an even bigger one where people are happy to do it for free.
The times have changed, and even though you might say I'm ill informed or well informed, I am none the less informed on the issues I seek information.

Sure, I know Israel, USA, China among others employ gangs to scour the net editing to suit their agenda, but I also know the main stream media are full of journalists beholden to the paymaster too.

News needs fearless journalists that seek to reveal the truth, that's THEIR product, not offering politically correct views to appease someone or compromising for the sake of advertising.

Perhaps journalists will once again discover their roots; but in the mean time, as long as the "press room" doors are open only to them, their job is safe, but it doesn't pay as well to as many, because they've lost our trust.
We don;t need them, we only need their press card.

meski1
Posted Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 14:37

Again I find myself in agreement with Gideon.  

 

Murdoch should have renamed from News Limited to Limited News, a more descriptive term for the sh1te they come out with.

bladeofgrass
Posted Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 19:36

"if information is in the interests of the general population, how is putting it behind a paywall fulfulling the role of journalism?"

If this question is valid, how does putting a price on the cover of a newspaper fulfill the role of journalism?

Another point; if the "public interest" is such a driving force behind traditional journalism, why did the New York Times publish so many pro-war stories leading up to this century's unparalleled war crime, the invasion of Iraq? Was it in the public interest to descend into absolute barbarism? (And don't pretend the NYT was "misled" by "faulty intelligence". If the intelligence was all wrong, why did it all err on the side of the pro-war crowd?)

The point I'm making is that the most respected name in news can make editorial decisions that contribute to catastrophic outcomes. Perhaps a new, decentralised media is truly what's in the "public interest".

shane49
Posted Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 20:22

Ah,  yes,  ran into this piece of insidious crap this morning!  Took all of 2 minutes to bypass it! 

phoneyid
Posted Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 21:42

Too right bladeofgrass;
That goes for for pretty well all of them, little on digging for facts, much on opinion and general pussy footing around the politically [dominant] correct view, be it from the right or the so called left. Like what was said of Allan Jones by a former pm "middle of the road fascism".
google search results for new word "presstitutes" 120,000+ results. and growing.

Rowan
Posted Sunday, July 7, 2013 - 08:02

Nice article. Thanks.