Murdoch’s proposals are good for journalism and good for us

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on August 18, 2009
Posted Under: Media

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.

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Reader Comments

This is a reactionary position that has nothing to do with socialism.

Firstly, it is worth noting that even though Murdoch’s third quarter profits fell by 47% they were still $US755 million. So instead of the question being posed as “why shouldn’t we pay to support quality journalism” it should be posed in the more the accurate terms of “why shouldn’t we pay to support the shareholders of a company that has systematically undermined quality journalism”.

Second, nothing on the web is “free”. There may be no charge to read content but as I sit here my computer is using electricity that incurs a cost to me (and the planet). I pay a monthly fee for my internet connection – as do most people in some form. When I read content online I have already paid for it.

Thirdly once you advocate the right of news corporations to charge for content it raises the question of how they protect that content from unauthorised copying and distribution. It leads automatically to the assumption that some sort of Digital Rights Management mechanism must be deployed. DRM is an attack on one of the basic values of the web – open code. If I like an article in a newspaper I can pass it to friend and suggest they read it. There is no charge for this. It is not copyright infringement. If I do the same under the regime you are proposing to support it is copyright infringement. Would you also therefore support the use of the law to prevent such copyright infringement? If you don’t, then charging for content is meaningless. If you do then your support for charging unavoidably leads you to support the use of the state against those that aquire content for free.

Finally you make the point that advertising supported content skews the nature of the content in order to target those with the greatest disposable income. Why would charging for content be any different in its outcomes? There would still be a tendency to skew the content toward those with the greatest disposable income – as there already is in the printed word. It would still mean that the media was dominated by the voices, lives and concerns of the middle class with no space for the voices, lives and concerns of the great majority of the population, who would continue to appear in news content only in a form that corresponds to all the bourgeois predjudices of those with the greatest disposable income.

Any payment for content provided by Murdoch is unavoidably a subsidy for the worst type of “journalism”.
There is some quality journalism produced by the Murdoch press but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the tidal wave of reactionary filth that this corporation is responsible for outputting on a daily basis. For every pound that finds its way into Murdoch’s coffers 99p will be used to sustain the production of this filth which drowns out any decent journalism that makes it through.

Payment for online news content has nothing to do with socialism people.

#1 
Written By Ady Cousins on August 20th, 2009 @ 9:41 am
Nick

An additional factor affecting the success of the experiment is the type of content that they choose to provide. Rather than providing mainstream news coverage that can be found on websites which are likely to remain free – the BBC being a prominent example – they should instead focus on quality analysis and investigative journalism. Readers don’t need the different types of journalism in one place; they can take stories from one site and commentary from another. By focusing on quality commentary and detailed stories, it will help them offer a product that has a clear and worthwhile role in a reader’s selection of websites.

#2 
Written By Nick on August 20th, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

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