Wednesday, September 16, 2009

We've got to PAY for news - but how?

You're reading this blog on the web (and no, it's not news!), so I suspect you might be reading much of your news on the web. There's excellent sites serving our insatiable need for news, from the BBC site in the UK to the M&G in South Africa to tbe BMJs health sites, and so on and so forth. This shift from print media to the web has resulted in the death of many venerable newspapers. Many have been household names for a century, and suddenly they were gone. Their sales figures plummeted because people bought paper copies of the newspapers in ever lower numbers, advertising revenue migrated to where people go today for news, a vicious cycle from a newspaper's perspective. Many websites run advertisements to pay for their content. It has become clear by now, however, that large news organisations such as the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Los Angeles Times cannot survive on the advertising revenue derived from their websites. Excellent newspapers tho they are, they're on the brink of extinction.

I have got to be honest, I rarely buy print copies of newspapers these days anymore. Living in Canada, I have difficulty justifying shelling out cash for the local papers, the quality of most of them is plain inferior to what is available free of charge on the web elsewhere. It's also unclear whether they contribute to national debate as much as they used to (after all, web based media are also capable of achieving this feast).

However, when I look carefully at how I interact with internet based news organisations' sites, I notice that, truth be told, essentially I am a free-rider. The superb (to my mind unique in terms of quality) BBC site, for instance is paid for by UK based TV license payers (ie tax payers) who have no choice but to pay their annual fee to support the BBC. While I am grateful to them, truth be told, I should probably pay towards maintaining that great source of high-quality news content that this site is. Equally, I doubt the South Africa based Mail& Guardian makes money from its fairly comprehensive site. There I am, a reasonably well-off developed world dweller, sucking up free news content produced in the developing world (fair enough, South Africa isn't as poor as its townships suggest, but still, you get the drift). Equally, the millions of Jamaican expatriates that read the Jamaican Gleaner newspaper to find out what's going on 'at home' do not pay the paper's proprietor anything for using the news content provided there free of charge to them via the internet. Mind you, the paper sucks so badly that it would probably never succeed if it decided to charge its internet based readers, but who knows...

I can't help but think that sadly Rupert Murdoch is right-on when he tries to get people to pay for news content on the News Corporation's website. As it happens, in my world News Corporation companies do not produce news, they generate reactionary propaganda, so I won't frequent their 'news' websites anymore in the future than I have done in the past. It's bad enough that I can't prevent Fox 'news' flooding into my home thru my cable provider's pre-packaged content delivery. However, if the BBC ever decided to charge a nominal fee for access to its internet news sites, I would almost certainly pay up.

The only disadvantage I see of this is that once the commercial access walls have gone up, there will be so much less news available, because the content will once again become proprietory in nature. Still, to assume that somehow large news sites could survive simply based on advertising revenue seems naive. When - if ever - have you clicked thru to one of the advertisers' sites? I think I may have done so 10 or 20 times over the last decade...

Any views on this anyone? My main concern is not that one would have to pay, as I said, I think we should begin paying for news content currently provided free of charge on the web. No, my main concern is that once we start paying we will ironically also receive access to much less information than we currently have. That surely is a regressive step.

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