Journalism in a digital age (and the curious case of The Guardian disliking paywalls but liking the licence fee)

by Stephen Tall on October 10, 2013

Two fascinating articles published this week about the future of journalism in a digital age.

First, the FT editor Lionel Barber explains the paper’s move not simply to a digital-first strategy, but in fact a digital-mainly strategy:

… the 1970s-style newspaper publishing process – making incremental changes to multiple editions through the night – is dead. In future, our print product will derive from the web offering – not vice versa. The new FT will be produced by a small print-focused team working alongside a larger integrated web/day production team.

Secondly, Katharine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian and editor-in-chief of Guardian Australia, delivered a speech in MelbourneThe rise of the reader: journalism in the age of the open web. It’s impressive and thoughtful. But I was struck by this passage:

… journalistically, paywalls are utterly antithetical to the open web. A paywalled website is just print in another form, making collaboration with the people formerly known as the audience much more difficult. You can’t take advantage of the benefits of the open web if you’re hidden away.

The narrative in defence is that good journalism must be paid for. Well, certainly good journalists must be paid. But these are different things. As Melbourne writer Bronwen Clune points out in New Matilda, “the theory behind a paywall … is that people will pay for good investigative pieces that are in the interests of the general population. But if information is in the interests of the general population, how is putting it behind a paywall fulfilling the role of journalism?” And further, why is it that, if important journalism must be paid for, media organisations often drop their paywalls when they have a particularly important story?

Clune adds: “We need to reframe the paywalls debate as a journalist’s dilemma. It’s an illusion that the future of journalism is safe behind them”. Indeed, I would argue that we are confusing two things. Journalists want to be paid, yes. And we want to find business models that make that possible – via advertising, partnerships, donation, cross-subsidy. But how could the future of journalism be safe behind a paywall, when the future of journalism is going on outside them?

It’s a virtuous pitch. And it’s fascinating that we have two such different models currently being trialled: paywalls from the News UK stable of The Times, Sunday Times and The Sun (with metered access from the Telegraph and FT); versus no-paywalls from The Guardian and Mail Online among others. Which will prove of long-term commercial success? I wouldn’t bet against Rupert Murdoch, but let’s see.

What I do find curious about The Guardian’s paywalls-are-bad argument, though, is that every reason Kath Viner marshals in favour of free access being the only guarantor of the future of journalism could equally be used in support of abolishing the BBC licence fee. Yet The Guardian is a staunch defender of that television paywall on the grounds that, yes, it’s the only guarantor of quality.