Guardian Editor Details Why Paywalls Harm Journalism

from the others-should-listen dept

While lots of newspapers have been talking up the idea of putting up a paywall (even as early results look really, really bad), the Guardian has been one publication that has been pretty adamant that paywalls for online news make no sense. This view was put forth again, quite eloquently, as Editor Alan Rusbridger detailed why it makes little sense not just from a business perspective, but from a journalism perspective:

It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world.

At the same time, he points out how paywalls also try to position papers as an “authority” rather than being involved in a wider story:

The second issue it raises is the one of ‘authority’ versus ‘involvement’. Or, more crudely, ‘Us versus Them’. Again, this is similar to the other two forks in the road, but not quite the same. Here the tension is between a world in which journalists considered themselves — and were perhaps considered by others — special figures of authority. We had the information and the access; you didn’t. You trusted us filter news and information and to prioritise it — and to pass it on accurately, fairly, readably and quickly. That state of affairs is now in tension with a world in which many (but not all) readers want to have the ability to make their own judgments; express their own priorities; create their own content; articulate their own views; learn from peers as much as from traditional sources of authority. Journalists may remain one source of authority, but people may also be less interested to receive journalism in an inert context — ie which can’t be responded to, challenged, or knitted in with other sources. It intersects with the pay question in an obvious way: does our journalism carry sufficient authority for people to pay — both online (where it competes in an open market of information) and print?

Putting up a paywall is really just newspapers pretending they can go back to being “authority” figures without realizing that this is not what people look to them to be, nor is it what they want them to be. And this actually brings up a really important point. Beyond the business model issues, paywalls impact journalism in the connected age:

As an editor, I worry about how a universal pay wall would change the way we do our journalism. We have taken 10 or more years to learn how to tell stories in different media — ie not simply text and still pictures. Some stories are told most effectively by a combination of print and web. That’s how we now plan our journalism. As my colleague Emily Bell is fond of saying we want it to be linked in with the web — be “of the web”, not simply be on the web.Some stories can be told in one sentence plus a link. Some journalists are fascinated by the potential of the running, linked blog. Andrew Sparrow’s minute by minute blog of Alastair Campbell’s appearance before the Chilcott inquiry was a dazzling example of this new form of reporting, which relies on the ability to link out to sources and other media, including original documents and even (in the lunch break) Campbell’s own Twitter feed….

This, journalistically, is immensely challenging and rich. Journalists have never before been able to tell stories so effectively, bouncing off each other, linking to each other (as the most generous and open-minded do), linking out, citing sources, allowing response — harnessing the best qualities of text, print, data, sound and visual media. If ever there was a route to building audience, trust and relevance, it is by embracing all the capabilities of this new world, not walling yourself away from them.

As he notes, this open linking and sharing policy leads to better journalism, and that could be hurt in a paywall world. Not only that, but it would cut off the one part of the business that is actually growing and improving:

In an industry in which we get used to every trend line pointing to the floor, the growth of newspapers’ digital audience should be a beacon of hope. During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40% more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company — you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape — has grown its audience by 40% in a year. More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times. This readership has found us, rather than the other way round. Our total marketing spend in America in the past 10 years has been $34,000.

He also effectively points out that the argument shouldn’t be about “new media” vs. “old media,” but about how the two work together:

We are edging away from the binary sterility of the debate between mainstream media and new forms which were supposed to replace us. We feel as if we are edging towards a new world in which we bring important things to the table — editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers. The members of that community could not hope to aspire to anything like that audience or reach on their own; they bring us a rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.

There is a mutualised interest here. We are reaching towards the idea of a mutualised news organisation.

The whole speech is much, much longer and well worth reading. But it adds a rather important element to the debate. Most of the argument has really focused on the business question, and whether or not paywalls would even work (or if they would just hasten the decline of newspapers). But this speech points out how paywalls also seem to get in the way of doing the type of journalism that the world now craves, and which the technology now allows.

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Companies: the guardian

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Comments on “Guardian Editor Details Why Paywalls Harm Journalism”

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Simon says:

Electronic editions also a false start

I think for many of the same reasons, it’s a false hope that vast numbers of people will move to Kindle editions of publications or use newspaper apps on their iPads. For some older people, it’s a nice middle ground; they get the old school edited, packaged bundle but on their gadgets. However I don’t think the younger generation want this. They want single articles, with links for deeper information if they so desire – not all their news routed through one editor.

There has been some limited success on the Kindle – mainly because browsing the web isn’t a realistic option, but given the (reported) web browsing experience on the iPad, why would you use a newspaper app rather than websites?

Brad Eleven (profile) says:


I wholeheartedly agree. I didn’t recognize CwF + RtB because it’s been so long since I even went to that page (teh google found it in 0.26 seconds).

Long story short, I’m waiting for the T-shirt to join, i.e., my RtB is a Techdirt t-shirt. Details, rumination, a possible solution–and a quantum of puffery follow.

Surely the T-shirt is the only physical item that’s actually in short supply. Not to knock this fine publication–which I thoroughly enjoy from every angle, and consult at least daily–but ordering more T-shirts from the same vendor is surely nothing more than a phone call (even a click) away, plus the up-front money. Most T-shirt vendors will do a weekly buffer so that your new orders go right to them, versus taking up your own office space to store the tees.

Worst case, the original T-shirt vendor went out of business or was unsatisfactory to Techdirt, and the vendor won’t/can’t return the design materials. Even then, a new design is OK, since the out-of-stock design artifacts were Limited Edition, anyway.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

artificial scarcity means walling yourself off.

I was interested in his observation that creating artificial scarcity is really just a way of isolating yourself. That certainly applies to other fields such as music. A struggling young musician (or an old music veteran, for that matter) should want their music to be heard. Creating an artificial scarcity means that fewer people are exposed to the music. Granted, just being heard doesn’t pay any bills, but it does give you the exposure to earn money by selling true scarcities.

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