Everybody Wants Content – Nobody Wants To Pay



First a quick history of 20th century print;

Newspapers employed journalists, who carried out court reporting and studied investigative journalism, and had salaries at the publishing house, which paid the printers and distributed papers. The press barons were bigoted – the Daily Mail supported Hitler – and the print union chapels got greedy and destroyed themselves. Hot type, the process of casting molten metal from a mould, ceased to be a mechanical process and was digitised to produce content without the need for printers and typesetters. The warehouses behind Fleet Street were sold off (I can still remember the smell of hot print and the immense rolls being unloaded in Tudor Street).

Although the last physical requirement started disappearing, journalists were still needed to gather news, until it was realised that an online paper could be ‘carriage only’, ie. you buy the news from a central agency and rebrand it in your style, and run the company with managers and IT staff. Everyone was now used to the idea of surfing for free news. If one website warned non-subscribers away, no problem – the same source article could be found with another click.

But what was lost in this process was the expertise – the sheer joy if you will – of good writing. If you ever for a second doubt that fine writing can make a difference, I urge you to read some of the American articles that have won Pulitzer prizes – yes, humble articles can win them. I once read a piece about US sports cars, probably the subject I’m least interested in in the world, and nearly cried with delight. Try this link for others.

The Independent - July 2013

So, as the Independent – my paper – heads toward its final print issue on March 20th, dumped by its Russian owner (but not before avenues of salvation were explored) there’s still no news about whether it will employ real journalists or will merely process purchased items from elsewhere. It’s a massive digital problem with no ending in sight. Next the BBC is talking about getting rid of its outmoded rolling TV news service. But if we’re not willing to pay for the news, who will pay for it?

Traditionally that answer has been advertising. But pop-up ads massively slow down the loading of sites – it’s not the news that takes time to load, it’s videos for toilet cleaner – and adblocking has become popular because people are frustrated with these ads slowing things down, particularly on mobiles.

The trouble with adblocking is that companies like AdBlock Plus allow some clients to run ads if they meet its criteria for ‘acceptability’. They pay papers 30% of the revenue they make from people using the software, and punters are using them more and more. Print papers still rely on declining print advertising and cover sales for their income, but they can build huge audiences online. However, to do that they need the digital ads which adblocking destroys. It’s odd when you consider that people are perfectly willing to turn a large chunk of their salaries over to Sky every month for a load of channels they’ll never watch. Sky and other cable channels offer something called ‘Illusion of Choice’, whereby they give you zillions of channels but nearly all of them are filled with boring rubbish nobody watches.

And now we have a peculiar situation wherein punters vote for no ads, but aren’t willing to buy the paper either. They’re used to getting something for nothing. In other words, they’ve all gone a bit Greek. So don’t bother looking for that amazing article about where global warming goes next, watch some Russian vehicle fails instead.

The trouble with centralising the news in the west is that it’s largely US-originated. I can tell in two lines if something has been bought in and adapted from an American source. Some sites don’t even bother with a style rewrite now, and are leaving in dollar signs and US spelling. The Indie 100 site is peppered with picked-up US content, and instead of ‘sources’ – spokesperson quotes you once needed two of to run any story in the UK – they now use trawled tweets.

I believe in letting things find their natural levels. Let print papers go, keep journalists in independent news agencies, allow online versions to become interactive. There’s one good side effect that will appear from this. We’ll be spared endless celebrity articles – anyone who wants those can read the Times.