I never imagined that I would make a post here commending Rupert Murdoch. Yet while virtually the entire blogosphere has scorned his expressed intention to charge for online content, I feel inclined to say that it’s a bloody good idea.
Free access to all manner of online content is brilliant. Yet it is also a luxury that is getting increasingly difficult to afford. We know full well that the Guardian Media Group has made substantial losses on its fantastic online presence. More broadly we know that newspapers are cutting back on quality journalism and indeed struggling to survive.
So I am at a bit of a loss as to why Murdoch’s proposals attracted so much off-the-cuff derision. We get great things from media companies through the web. And these great things require alot of resources. Most importantly good news production requires a great deal of talented labour. It is all very well saying that charging for content will never work. But it is also clear that the status quo isnt working. Online content is possible because it is cross subsidized from elsewhere. And this cannot happen forever.
It is also suggested that newspapers might survive through ad revenue. I am not merely skeptical of such an idea. I also find it problematic even if it is possible. Quite simply I do not want to see journalism turned into a bi-product of the advertising industry. Open any newspaper and you will find a business section out of all proportion to popular interest. Why? Because it sells lucrative advertising. When a newspaper derives its revenue primarily from sales it has an incentive to offer the kind of news and commentary that interests people. When it relies primarily on ads it is weighted towards those areas that have a well defined marketing base.
I also feel that the vitriolic reaction to Murdoch reveals a broader issue about the way people view electronic content. Namely that people seem happy to consume it while barely thinking about what it takes to produce it. I have written before about the ridiculous arguments deployed to justify illegal downloads. It seems that a decade of free web content has bred a generation of freegans with an absurd sense of entitlement. When it comes to music, we hear scores and scores of people making vague and superficially perceptive comments about the music industry being ‘too slow to adjust their business models’. How on earth do you adjust your business model to people giving away your products – which take enormous amounts of talent and effort to produce – for free? Similar arguments are made about papers.
Many people believe Murdoch’s experiment will be a flop. It is certainly a bold step. Yet whether it is a success will depend upon how others react. If the rest of the major media carry on as they are then I can certainly see readers migrating en masse rather than paying. But I am not so sure that they won’t follow suit. They will be faced with two opportunities. Either they carry on giving away content and hope to benefit as Murdoch press online readers flee. Or they seize the opportunity that he will create for them to start charging for content themselves. Given how badly the current model is working out for them they may do just that. And if all the major players act together then charging for content may be viable. And perhaps. and this is a big perhaps, this may begin to erode the culture in which people expect free online content as a right.
Freeganism is not socialism people.