Comment: D-day for journalism?

The Times puts up an online paywall while the Independent contemplates going freesheet. By the end of 2010 we will have a better idea of the future of British journalism.

By Ian Dunt

It looks like the future of British journalism has a timetable. Today, the Times and Sunday Times Online announced they would be putting their content behind a paywall starting in June. Yesterday, Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev bought the Independent newspaper for £1, the same price he paid for the Evening Standard. The rumours are that he intends to make it a freesheet, as he did the last time.

So we potentially have two paths for British journalism opening out in front of us.

Fleet Street has been watching Rupert Murdoch closely to see how his desire to charge for online content will work. Most don't believe it will and millions of readers will be lost to other outlets instead. My view is that it all comes down to payment, or rather micro-payment. This is a strange topic, and one journalists enjoy discussing over a pint. How much is a single article worth? 5p? 3p? £1? Some of the articles I have read in my life were worth hundreds of pounds. They forever changed the way I viewed the world, and it's hard to put a price on that. Many have been worth precisely nothing. The most interesting ideas about charging for online news content revolve around micro-payments, the assumption being that wholesale payments for the entire package reflect a culture less used to tailoring its media to its interests. In an age of Sky Plus, it just seems out of date.

But that is precisely what Times Online has opted for, with a scheme that charges £1 a day, or £2 for a week including the Sunday Times. My hunch is that this won't work, and that a user ID set-up combined with micropayments would have been preferable. But I may be wrong. It is unwise - but enjoyable - to underestimate Rupert Murdoch.

The Independent will be watching proceedings closely. If the Times fails in June, it will probably plunge ahead with making the newspaper free. After all, what does it have to lose? It has been rumoured to be on the verge of shutting down for years now. The nuclear option is not a nuclear option when the alternative is extinction.

But the prospect of a quality broadsheet going for free is massive. Presumably its circulation would go through the roof. It has no competitors in the free morning newspaper market, apart from Metro, which appeals to a different demographic. Most broadsheet readers who have any need to economise whatsoever will surely convert. The Independent is not as alienating to right-wingers as many non-readers of the paper presume. It is lumped in with the left-leaning press, and for good reason, but it is a pro-market newspaper which was only born because Murdoch broke the print unions in the first place. Its commentators come from all sides of the political divide, from Mark Steel, who was considered too left-wing for the Guardian, to Bruce Anderson, who is too right-wing for anyone.

It's likely that advertising will go through the roof, and other papers follow suit. This is, after all, what happened when the Guardian made its website free. In a rush to the bottom, it forced everyone else to go free too. The Independent, ironically, was the last newspaper to hold out - still charging the rate Times Online is suggesting, at £1 a day.

But once all the papers do it we'll be left in the same position we are in right now: ruining all sources of income for the media. Admittedly, the money brought in through the cover price pales in comparison to advertising, but it is unpleasant to watch an industry reduce its own financial sources, especially when it's your industry.

The free model has not proved financially viable. When the Guardian Online went free, its hits went through the roof and the presumption (safe at the time) was that this was surely a product which could make money. It didn't.

This process also contributes to the impression that journalism is somehow worthless, that it is without value. It is not. Socks fulfil a function. They cost money. Journalism fulfils a function, and it should therefore cost money too. Simple stuff really.

What function does journalism fulfil? It challenges the powerful. The rich, the corporations, the state, the government: they all fear decent investigative journalism, and they all love the way journalism is going. Overworked hacks relying on a tiny number of feeds, trapped to their desks because of a huge workload, unable to find the time to follow up stories or commit themselves to investigations. They love the new journalism, where easy-to-write celebrity stories and rubbish about which perfume to wear while giving birth take precedence over hard news. Hard news costs more to produce, you see, and there's not much money floating around.

If the financial debate isn't fixed soon, the press - one of Britain's most important gifts to the world - will become even more toothless and redundant than it already is. The Times is set to go one way and, if the rumours are to be believed (even Independent hacks I've spoken to aren't sure) the Indie is about to go another. By the end of 2010, we should have a clearer idea of the future of British journalism. Let's hope, for all our sakes, that it's a road which provides money.

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