Murdoch is right

If we value good journalism, why don’t we pay for it online?
June 23, 2010

Rupert Murdoch and his team at the Times and the Sunday Times have laid down their challenge to consumers of information: if you value good journalism, pay for it. After a free trial period, access to both papers’ websites now costs £1 a day or £2 a week. I'm in the front of the queue to type in my Visa number, but I fear I'm almost alone. One might expect to see journalists’ and writers’ unions there, along with commentators and editors applauding a proprietor who places a value on their profession. Yet the reaction among these groups ranges from non-committal to outright hostile.

From bare breasts in the Sun, through the battle of Wapping and the launch of Sky TV, Rupert Murdoch has few friends in the labour movement or the liberal establishment. There are already claims that plans to bundle the Times paywall together with Sky subscriptions is the latest move in a campaign to undermine the BBC. But one should not confuse the idea of paying for content with distaste for one media mogul. Newspapers have suffered a decade of falling circulation and job losses. If Murdoch’s model works, it’s a solution for much of what ails the industry.

Yet the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) withholds support. Its vice president, Donnacha DeLong, rejects the idea that journalism is in a similar situation to the music industry when, a few years ago, musicians’ unions backed paid services such as iTunes over free file-sharing sites such as Napster. DeLong says journalists, unlike singers, are not paid for each piece of work, so such a model won’t necessarily benefit the NUJ’s members.

Commentators are hardly clamouring to praise Murdoch either. Nick Davies, who in his 2008 book Flat Earth News decried a culture of “churnalism”—a skeleton staff of news reporters rewriting press releases to fill their pages—thinks the paywall may be the ruination of the Times: “There is likely to be a huge migration to the Guardian and the BBC, and the Times will lose much of its advertising.” He believes that other cross-subsidy models are a better bet.

It’s not just economics that Murdoch is battling, but also the wider web ethos of “free”: the idea that the internet should be an Eden where knowledge can be exchanged without a price attached. It has vocal champions among journalists. Former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, who has given up print to run the Daily Beast website, recently said she admired Murdoch for his print nous, but didn’t believe he understood the internet. Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair writer and Murdoch biographer, thinks the paywall will expose how little value readers attach to commentators like Rod Liddle, or indeed himself. (He underestimates his pulling power—I’ve subscribed to Vanity Fair for three years just for his articles.)

The concept of “free,” though, is something of a charade. We already pay in many different ways. We start off having to spend £500 on a laptop (£1,000 if you are an Apple cultist) and a broadband connection, before quickly entering in the commercial playgrounds of iTunes and Amazon. We Brits also pay the BBC a licence fee of £145.50 annually, which funds its hugely successful website. And then there’s the invisible payment system where you hand over your personal data, email address and film-viewing habits used for levering-up rates for targeted advertising. The Financial Times uses this in its “freemium” model, through which you get some articles for free in return for registering your details. All this—yet we still demand good journalism for nothing.

You can argue that the new Times website isn’t up to much, that the charging model is primitive, that you don’t want to do business with Murdoch, or that you can get your news for “free” elsewhere. But what can’t be disputed, as a result of this unwillingness to pay, is that high quality, public-interest journalism is in crisis.

The newspaper arm of the Guardian Media Group, Guardian News & Media, which publishes the Guardian and Observer, was losing £100,000 a day last autumn, and posted operating losses of £34.4m for the year to March. It has let over 200 staff go to balance the books. The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has rejected paywalls, with GMG indulging in acrobatic finance deals to raise money. But is this how we want our media? A future in which a loss-making Times survives only by cross-subsidy from the right-wing Fox News is hardly attractive. We could cross our fingers for the Evening Standard, which went free last year and is on the verge of profit—providing the advertising market blows in its favour. Or we could go for a newspaper “club” model—like the new Guardian project, where you pay for invites to special events and offers of reduced-priced organic porridge.

If I’m going to pay, I’d rather pay upfront for news, not porridge. There is nothing cleaner than a financial transaction between a reader and a news organisation—be it a licence fee or via a paywall. Consider the Guardian. It has 30m unique users on its website each month. If 100,000 paid a daily fee of £1, the paper would be in profit. If 1m paid, online readers would be the biggest contributor to its finances.

If Murdoch fails, so be it. But if news organisations can’t make enough money—as they have failed to in the past decade—producers and consumers of journalism suffer. So regardless of objections to Murdoch, there is every reason to hope that his scheme works—and you should support his paywalls on your blog, with your tweets and, most importantly, your credit cards.

Indeed, I would go further than that: if no one is asking you to pay for something you value, you should ask them to. Write to the editor of your chosen paper and ask for a mechanism to fund the online journalism you so value. Only then will you get the journalism you want.