Monday, 24 September 2012

Who should pay for the news?

Journalists are like politicians.  They serve a vital function in a democracy (at least it's hard to imagine how our system of government could work without them) but no-one seems to like them and, increasingly, no-one wants to pay for them either.  Newspaper sales have been falling for years and in many cases seem now to be at the point of collapse - just as membership of political parties is far, far smaller than it was.  Many politicians want to institutionalise their parasitical relationship with the voters through a system of state funding. So how about state funding of newspapers?

Here's the Guardian's veteran investigative journalist David Leigh:


According to conventional wisdom, print is doomed.... Yet when the day comes that the newspapers are forced to stop printing altogether, it will be a disaster for democracy. The lean pickings from web advertising on a free newspaper site will only pay for a fraction of the high-quality investigative journalism that commercial newspapers generate. We'll just get the timid BBC on the one hand, and superficial junk on the other.

Leigh wants to see a monthly levy of £2 on every broadband subscriber or internet-enabled mobile phone contract, which would be distributed between the major newspaper groups on the basis of how many hits their websites attract.  After all, he argues, "people willingly pay this money to a handful of telecommunications companies, but pay nothing for the news content they receive as a result, whose continued survival is generally agreed to be a fundamental plank of democracy."

What Leigh can't explain is why an increasingly obsolete technology should be cross-subsidised by a licence-fee style charge on digital services that people actually want to use, or, indeed, why his lament for the decline of print represents anything other than nostalgia.  Printed newspapers will inevitably die when they cease to be financially viable.  That will be a shame for those few dinosaurs who still relish the feel and smell of actual newsprint, including me, but I don't see how it represents a kind of disaster for democracy, any more than the replacement of town criers by newspapers during the 18th century was a disaster for democracy.  As a way of engaging the public with current affairs, the internet has obvious advantages over print.  It's faster, instantly updateable, more interactive, can incorporate video and - unlike a physical newspaper - permanently archived for anyone who wants it.  In almost every sense an improvement.

The real question, of course, is about content rather than medium; and Leigh has a point when he notes that there is something odd about a set-up where members of the public pay quite substantially for the infrastructure but expect to receive the content for free. Obviously, it's great that you can get everything for free on the internet, but it's also kind of appalling.   Anything of quality - whether music, or journalism, or films, or even (God help us) porn - takes time and effort and heart and soul to produce.  It doesn't, or shouldn't, come free, because unless you're sustained by inherited wealth everyone has to earn a living. 

Before the days of commercial publishing no writers except a few playwrights could be professional.  If not independently wealthy, they had to find a rich patron to subsidise them, or else make time to write amid the hustle and bustle of normal life.  Recent years have seen a move back towards such as system, with newsroom internships dominated by rich kids with trust-funds or generous parents and more journalists now employed in press offices and PR firms than by newspapers (the equivalent, in some ways, of the court poets of yesteryear).  And, of course, much original investigative work is being done by largely unpaid bloggers.

If everyone with a broadband connection used it primarily to access the online versions of newspapers - and if the internet were predominantly a newspaper-delivery system - then Leigh's idea, crude though it is, might have more to recommend it.  But neither is true: national newspapers are just one among many services available online.  Newspapers are actually in a much stronger position than record labels or film producers (to say nothing of pornographers) in that they have much less piracy to contend with: the free competition comes mainly from each other, though it is true that people can get basic news from sources such as Yahoo and, in Britain, the BBC.  Ultimately, the Guardian puts its content on the web for nothing through its own choice.  If that choice isn't working out for it, then it should put up a paywall; and if not enough people want to pay to read the Guardian, that's the Guardian's problem and no-one else's.

Leigh's scheme is the product of a Guardian mindset that sees itself as being rather like the BBC, only better, and is understandably jealous of the licence fee.  Especially after that £76 million loss.  There are genuine problems, though, with suggested schemes of monetisation.  An obvious one involves the way in which news is consumed in the digital age.  In the old days, people would have their daily paper and stick to it: whether they were a Guardian reader, a Telegraph reader or a Sun reader, almost everyone was a something reader, seeking their daily fix of news, opinion, sport, gossip, horoscopes and (for Sun readers) breasts from the same source.  No longer.  Online, one surfs between the news outlets (and the blogs), picking up views and information, comparing and contrasting treatments of the same subject, or following up friends' suggestions on Twitter or Facebook.  Paywalls don't really work.  Micropayments - individual payment for each item viewed - might be a solution, but could prove annoying and the privacy implications, with each item of your daily viewing tracked and appearing itemised on your credit card statement, are scary.

My preferred solution would be a mutual paywall, with all the major news outlets clubbing together and charging a set fee for access to the whole network, funds being shared out on the basis of hits.  This would be opt-in: no-one who wanted to read online journalism would have to, while those who did would be able to read anything they liked.  And anyone could join it, from News International to the humblest blogger, should any so desire though the amount of money going to most small-timers might not even cover the membership fee. 

Outside the paywall, there would be very little quality journalism, whether quality is judged in terms of investigative content or literary merit.  People who didn't pay would be excluded, but then people who preferred not to buy a daily newspaper have always been excluded; and they could always visit a library.  But inside the paywall, the situation would be much more egalitarian, with content rather than price making the difference between the Guardian and the Daily Mirror.  The cost would be affordable to most pockets - perhaps more affordable than a daily paper, with its attendant production costs - but only people who actually wanted to consume journalism would be forced to pay for it.  It is a solution both democratic and competitive; and certainly preferable to David Leigh's proposed Guardian tax.