A contribution to the "paid vs free" online content debate

The only newspaper I buy on a regular basis is The Sunday Times. If I’m going to buy a daily paper, it will usually be a copy of The Times. I like the presentation, the tone, the journalism, the opinion and in particular the sports coverage. It’s clear that if I had to pick a “favourite” national newspaper, it would be the Times stable.

But I have no intention of paying to subscribe to the new paywall-protected web sites of the two Murdoch papers.

I get very frustrated by the “pay vs free” debate for online journalism. The issue is presented too often in binary terms – the pro-pay lobby say that quality journalism will die unless it’s paid for. The free advocates say that professional journalism will die unless it is competing for free hits alongside the millions of “citizen journalists” and small-scale news sites who would never charge but do little more than rewrite press releases.

Like most things that change, the debate is far more nuanced than it is often presented between its most vocal protagonists.

In yesterday’s Sunday Times there was a blatantly pro-paywall article that was scathing in its criticism of The Guardian for insisting its web site will stay free. The article drew parallels with the music industry and its attempts to ensure that copyrighted creativity is paid for and not downloaded illegally. I would suggest you read the article, despite its wholly one-sided nature, but of course I can’t link to the article to help you find it, because it’s behind a paywall.

As a professional journalist, of course I understand and support the argument that quality journalism deserves to be paid for; that there are certain types of coverage that simply would not exist without content being paid for – war reporting, investigative journalism, and so on.

But I don’t see that the argument has to be the same as saying that readers should be the ones who fund all that journalism.

Journalism – and the publications that provide it – exist for only one reason: that people want to read them. Yes, journalism has a role to play in holding those in power to account – but that has only ever been because our readers want to hold the powerful to account. Readers are our everything – or should be.

Equally I accept that, dear reader, you might not always know what you want. As the saying goes, if Henry Ford had asked people what they want, they would have said, “faster horses”.

But Ford would not have created the mass-market car industry without knowing that what people did want was to get from one place to another more quickly.

And that’s where the nuance is missing from the debate over funding journalism.

If, for example, people want costly journalism such as war reporting, they will probably pay for it – but that is all they will want to pay for. They won’t pay for an online national newspaper that might, on some days but not others, deliver that high-value content.

We all know that journalism is fragmenting online – and the funding of that journalism will inevitably fragment with it. The idea of paying for everything or having nothing doesn’t stack up. There will be multiple business models, multiple ways of accessing content, and multiple ways of funding that content. If that sounds confusing to a media mogul, they need to realise that it doesn’t sound confusing to their increasingly tech-savvy readers.

Let’s look at Computer Weekly as an example – an example that holds for all the “free” tech publications, in print and online.

We have never sold content to readers. Our historic print business model – known as controlled circulation – uses reader data as the means of barter. You provide us with information about you and your job, and in return we will provide you with quality journalism and content. To make money, we will sell that data to advertisers who want to engage with you.

Online, the model is broadly the same. We provide great content (I hope…) and in return place valuable reader eyeballs onto the same web page as a series of adverts. But online we can add extra nuance: for higher-value content, such as whitepapers or web seminars, we ask you to barter with your data. There’s no need for us to charge you in cash for our content. We make money, readers get great content, advertisers stay happy.

Technology is not about rip and replace, it’s not an “either…or” argument. Television did not replace radio. Video did not replace cinema. I don’t see e-books eliminating paperbacks.  

For me, the message about the way that technology is changing the creative industries is not that it is destroying old business models or that it will only benefit those who embrace a brand-new existence. The reality is that technology fragments industries, it breaks down barriers to entry that have protected big companies for years and allows for small, fast-moving new entrants to bring greater choice, diversity, and, sometimes, complexity. It makes our job as journalists and content producers a lot harder, But the reason that happens is because that is what customers – our readers – want.