To Wall or not to wall

The dilemma facing journalists today, especially those who are not yet fully fledged, is where are we going?

The conversation about paid content is hotting up. Good journalism costs, that’s a no-brainer, but when it’s free at the point of consumption who really pays?

The aggregators can clean up on advertising revenues as they have the statistics and unique user data to impress the money men, while traditional print can only call on circulation figures and subscriber information.

Okay, so now the traditional media is reaching out to its audiences (some too little, too late) and can track traffic through their online presence, but it’s still not enough to impress the advertisers and online advertising is fiercely competitive and therefore cheaper.

I don’t of course, come to these insightful words by myself. This is the accumulation of a series of lectures, culminating in a really interesting and very fast-paced talk by Rob Andrew from PaidContent.

PaidContent, which is now 4 sites (PaidContent, PaidContentUK, moconews and contentSutra), was set up by Rafat Ali . A man who could smell the Zeitgeist and knew how to act on the first whiffs of a digital content revolution.

It’s blindingly obvious that the print and broadcast media are going to have to get their act together and come up with a business model, or series of models, that will sustain the kind of journalism that underpins the principles of open and accountable democracy, free speech and freedom of expression.

That’s easier said than done.

Rupert Murdoch’s solution is to tuck his content behind a pay wall. But will it be special enough to entice readers over the wall, parting with cash as they scramble over the barricades to find…what? How much can he offer that won’t be free elsewhere?

The specialists have always had an advantage. They have the information that their readers/markets need and are happy to pay for (or to charge it to the company account), but the ordinary punter? I doubt that The Sun will do it, nor will most of the broadsheets.

There was an interesting question from the floor: If papers are relying on brand loyalty but there readership is now paying for content online, how do they expect to attract the next generation of loyal readers?

A good point. I grew up with The Guardian’s ink smeared across my face, long before I picked it up to read it, but pick it up I did and still do. It’s engrained in the complicated make-up of my very being. I’m allowed to criticise but non-Guardian readers are not.

My kids have seen me read it and even picked it up and had a look themselves. If I was getting my Guardian fix on an e-reader or online that’s hardly likely to happen. I could go on about parents being seen to read anything by their children and links to the increasingly illiteracy of the up-coming generation, but this is the wrong soap box.

So what are the alternatives? Pay walls won’t save the day, advertising revenues are crashing through the floor in the current recession and it’s a buyers’ market for them. Subscriptions are money in the bank, but will people subscribe if they think their paper’s going to go under, highlighted by this summer’s shock revelation that The Observer be wound up?

Local papers are struggling for even more complex reasons. In small communities the loss of the little corner newsagent might just tip the balance in sales, while the short sighted cost cutting exercises of slashing editorial staff to balance the books means that the content quality goes down and they lose readers, so need to lose more jobs and round it goes to oblivion.

The Guardian is relatively safe – backed by the Scott Trust to safeguard liberal journalism, although they’ll still need to bring home the revenue bacon.

Before the rot sets in there must be some kind of wake up call to the media to sort this out. Not knee jerk wall building or staff cutting, but an understanding of what makes people engage with the media in the first place. That would be good, ie accurate, informed, specialist journalism that offers multiple views or, at the very least, a rigorous analysis of a particular standpoint.

Specialists don’t need to be experts. Local papers used to be the hubs for all things local – births, deaths, missing budgies, court reports, council meetings, scandal, outcry and outraged letters that took the temperature of the community and fed it back to itself. They are fading fast. Attempts to address this by beat blogging or hyper local sites will necessarily leave gaps. Citizen journalism might give an immediate way into a story, but surely it’s the journalists who can go that bit further, ask the difficult questions, follow through.

Lightspeed’s analysis of the paywall question  doesn’t bode well for Mr Murdoch – 91% won’t pay for content. The much-heralded arrival of the Kindle and other e-readers doesn’t seem to be changing the way that people read their news.  KPMG found that only 4% of people had read an ebook in the past month  and me, I’m off to the park with my paper and a coffee.

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