Sustainability or fame, journalists must choose

H/t to Dominic Frisby for the core of this idea which he summarised on a recent James Delingpole podcast.

Journalism will likely go down in history as the profession most-ironically least-aware of its impending doom. By this, I mean that it is the profession which is paid to report on, erm, new and interesting developments.

So the irony is that this same profession completely missed the invention of the internet, cheap mobile data, smart phones and social media, the combination of which has all but destroyed what was previously a solid and respectable career from school leaver to retirement age.

Before technology overtook journalists, the supply/demand curve was balanced enough to keep everyone employed, even with the various government-sponsored news sources providing the same service “for free”, such as the UK’s BBC, Canada’s CBC or Australia’s ABC.

This all changed when we could select various news websites on our phone rather than waiting for the 9pm news or the paper boy to do his rounds in the morning.

The industry has been hurting since with many famous old brands closing shop or downsizing to shadows of their former selves.

In recent times however, some brands are beginning to turn a profit again. The Times Group (The Times and The Sunday Times) in London made a profit in 2014 for the first time in 13 years. In 2016, The Times Group made £11m while in contrast, Guardian Media Group, owner of The Guardian, lost £69m.

The Times implemented a “hard” paywall in 2010.

The Guardian does not have a paywall, just a passive-aggressive begging letter at the bottom of every webpage.

There is another huge difference between the paywall and non-paywall media companies; you will know the names of the journalists employed by The Guardian, you are unlikely to recall any for The Times.

As a journalist, it’s fantastic for your public exposure if you are employed by a non-paywall newspaper in a way that those behind the paywall can only dream of. People can read your content for free, resulting in more publicity and other side projects and TV/radio appearances, while your employer continues to pay your salary at a flat rate.

Those behind the paywall must continually write quality and engaging journalism that chimes with their readership. If not, they will be replaced by someone else who can.

The free content johnnies, on the other hand, are working for clicks alone. It apparently makes no difference whether or not they are monetised in any way.

Think Giles Coren versus Owen Jones.

One model boosts a few egos whilst murdering shareholder value, the other demands quality and delivers increased shareholder value.

Bill’s Opinion

Paywalls are inevitable for non-state funded news organisations. Cost cutting is a healthy discipline but there comes a point where the quality suffers and consumers choose to pay for a better product. The results of this experiment are now in.

Organisations such as the UK’s Guardian Media Group or Australia’s Fairfax are currently staring down few choices, none of which are palatable; charge for all content, find a new business model or close down.

The journalists have a starker choice; write content people are willing to pay for or find another job.

The next two or three years will be interesting times watching the non-paywallers.

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