Thursday, 15 July 2010

Blogging behind the paywall

It's nice to get paid for your blogging. I wish someone would pay me (yes, CIF, I do mean you). Still, the concept of blogging behind a paywall, as is now the fate of most of the Times' well-known bloggers (though happily not, at any rate for the time being, the great Professor Beard) strikes me as distinctly iffy. As it happens, I have quite a lot of sympathy for newspapers who want to honour the professionalism and expense of their premium content by forcing readers to pay for it, either online or in print. But blogging is not journalism, even though many journalists blog and the best bloggers sometimes even do journalist-type things (like investigation or, indeed, basic research) rather better than many proper journalists manage to do in these distracted times. It is a conversation, in which, ideally, the readers contribute as much as the writers. It invites, indeed requires, engagement.

Tim Kevan, the lawyer who blogs as Baby Barista, left the Times in protest after it became clear that their paywall would apply to blogs as much as to the main substance of the paper. He was later picked up by the Guardian, but was prepared to go it alone rather than sacrifice his audience for News Corp's stipend. He writes:


The problem was that I simply didn’t think many people would have read my blog stuck not only behind a registration wall but also with a fee for entrance on top of that. I also think that it could have been avoided since there are so many innovative ways of making cash online and the decision to plump for an across-the-board blanket subscription over the whole of their content makes them look like a big lumbering giant, unable to cope with the diversification of the media brought about by online content, blogging, Facebook, Twitter – the list is endless. Canute-like in their determination to stop the tide of free content and using a top down strategy which for the moment at least appears to lack any flexibility.


There are several problems with the Times paywall - the cost, indeed, being relatively modest, may be the least of it. As Mark Thompson points out, even worse is the daunting application page, which is an enormous hassle to fill out and demands a frightening amount of personal information in return for the privilege of giving Rupert Murdoch your pounds. I wonder if that's why, according to Michael Wolff, "not only is nobody subscribing to the website, but subscribers to the paper itself - who have free access to the site - are not going beyond the registration page. It’s an empty world."

When I first took a peek at the site a couple of months ago I was surprised to discover you had to be eighteen or over to access it - as though The Times and the Sunday Times were offering porn. Small wonder that more than one Times journalist has drawn the parallel between the fate of the commercial porn and news businesses, both threatened with being swamped by the vast amount of free content out there in cyberspace. Or perhaps it's just that working for Murdoch and sucking cock for a living had quite a bit in common to begin with.

Unlinked-to and unread by the vocal online community, Times writers, it has often been said, risk being marginalised from the great national debate. That may not be so much of a problem for the paper's main content. After all, it's easy enough to buy a copy of The Times, and any really big story, or worthwhile opinion-piece, will swiftly be re-reported, plagiarised or commented-upon elsewhere. The fact that Peter Mandelson's tiresome revelations this week about the Brown-Blair wars of the past decade were serialised in The Times didn't mean they went ignored by the rest of the media, sadly. But the blogs and other online-only content is effectively ghettoised and rendered pointless by the paywall. The likes of Oliver Kamm and Danny Finkelstein have effectively exiled themselves from the blogosphere. It's a wonder they still bother.

Still, some Times journalists seem to like the intellectual purity of the concept that none of their work should be available to all and sundry. Earlier today I had a Twitter exchange with Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill, whose well-informed views and regular scoops I can regrettably no longer read. I told her I thought blogging within a paywall was like "shouting inside a soundproofed cell" and "crazy". She retorted that "paying news journos to produces acres of free blog content was even crazier" But journalists are paid for journalism, not blogging, which is (or should be) supplementary and complementary to the main event. And was it really worth it to have lost most of her readers? "They are not unread and they are now making money to justify the time I spend on them!" she replied. So there. Someone evidently is still reading Ruth Gledhill's walled-off blog. Just not anyone I've ever spoken to.