All the news fit to pay for

So the wise old lion has roared again. Rupert Murdoch has threatened the orthodoxy and dangled a possible lifeline to the struggling newspaper industry by declaring that his titles will start charging for online content. But how did anyone seriously come to believe that news information could be free in the first place?

The slogan that information wants to be free is often credited to an influential former hippie called Stewart Brand in the 1980s.
Like many veterans of the communes that had sprung up around the San Francisco area in the late 1960s, Brand had become intrigued by the prospect that the brand new medium of the net could give the faded ideals of California’s counterculture a fresh lease of life.

Just like the commandos of the counter-culture, Brand and his fellow electro-hippies thought that they could use the net to burrow under America’s hierarchies and elites, and thereby put ordinary people in touch with other. By the 1990s they had set up Wired magazine, a zippy, infectious paean to the power of new technology to solve the world’s problems, and begun work fleshing out their ideas about the centrality of electronic information to modern life. The current editor-in-chief of Wired, Chris Anderson, whose recent book Free argued that the plunging cost of distributing electronic information to large numbers of people means that more things can be provided for free, is the inheritor of this tradition and graciously acknowledges the debt. It was another Wired journalist, Jeff Howe, who helped to popularise the notion of “crowdsourcing”—the idea that established institutions could use the net to foment a Wikipedia-like conversation with their punters and enlist them as participants in producing the goods.

The newspaper industry as we know it in Western countries is now over-ripe, and in decline. Ten years ago the response of those in charge to the Wired way of thinking was a haughty guffawing and a changing of the subject. Gradually, however, many of them let themselves be seduced by the evangelical gee-whizzery of the electro-hippies. It was enough, they said, to be part of the conversation on the net. If huge numbers of people were talking about your newspaper and linking to it, they said, sooner or later the economics would come right.

The cheerleaders of a free, digital utopia want to resurrect the mass market for news by having us chat to each other and our newspapers all day long. But between the fusty old newspapermen who refuse to tweet and the gadgeteers who do little else, there is little evidence that the rest of us have the time to be cogs in an all-purpose electronic machine. Long before the net tore apart its business model, the truth is that many newspapers were looking bloated and fat, as if lifestyle supplements and the advertising which went along with them was all readers wanted.

What they wanted, it turns out, was focused content, written by journalists who know what they’re talking about. The freshest news outlets springing up in the US, for instance, are Politico, the magazine aimed at political junkies which broke the scandal of the Washington Post charging companies for access to its reporters, or TMZ, the well-connected celebrity mag which broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death.

News organisations will, as a consequence, divide into populist monoliths which try to be all things to all people—witness the growth of news aggregators, for example—or, more promisingly, slim down and concentrate on what they know about.

For those that can hold their ground and know their niche, the good news is that the advertising industry will eventually have to catch up to the fact that the production of news is moving away from national mainstream outlets into a more global patchwork of niches. What matters then is whether newspapers have anything distinctive enough to pay for, or audiences who are interested enough in reading them to see their demographic data sold on to advertisers in tune with their specific interests. In one way or another, Rupert is right and the free-lords are wrong—we’ll end up having to pay for the news that we really want. -

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