You’ve never paid for news, you never will
You say you want a revolution
Well, you know we all want to change the world ...
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know, we’re doing what we can ...
You read news. So you know there’s a revolution going in the news industry, with much untargeted crossfire, rattling of virtual sabres and foaming at the mouth about paid content.
Rude words have been said. Like “parasite”. And “money”.
I’ve been revolting for years, of course, having been part of the first decade or so of the war - the move by newspapers to digital publishing.
Rude words were said during that long engagement too. Like “cannibalising”. And “You rat bastard”.
There was a feeling among some of my colleagues, at times, that perhaps I should pull my head in and stop merrily giving away our excellent content for free on couriermail.com.au.
Nonetheless, we and other newspapers have built great and growing web audiences.
Unfortunately, the maths just refuses to add up properly, so news firms are, inevitably, looking for ways to make it pay so they can continue to pay me. I am in favour of this, because I am fond of eating.
Fans of the “information wants to be free” side of Stewart Brand’s information paradox maintain that will end us.
Conventional wisdom among webizens (including most of my lovely Twitter stalkers - hi guys) says putting up pay walls on our news sites will kill 95% of our traffic.
News Corp and other research has suggested other, less dramatic figures. There’s no clear picture.
But that is not the point of the paid content debate. The point is that it is not about paid content.
Listen carefully: Newspaper organisations have never charged for content. Ever. In any medium.
We have charged advertisers for access to readers, in a daily miracle whereby we put their ads in front of you every morning, and you picked up those ads because we managed, amazingly, to put yesterday’s news in amongst them. (Yes, yesterday’s news. Wow. This was truly an extraordinary achievement when I started in newspapers, back in the Dark Ages. Don’t get me started.)
And we have charged readers a token amount to subsidise the cost of getting that content to them, the way our milko (yes, we still have a milko, bless him) charges us a bit extra for delivering his content.
We also pay for the milk, but news readers have paid and continue to pay only for the vehicle, not the content. The paper, not the news.
The cost of creating news content has not reduced. Far from it. But the cost of delivery of news online is wee indeed compared to the cost of the old daily miracle. So the maths has to change.
The web is all about information that is free, as in unfettered, and free as in free of charge - except for the cost of your monthly connection.
Oh, and the shiny desktop or laptop or sweet little iPhone or other beloved/behated gadget you are using to read this.
And perhaps a hefty slug for mobile megabytes. And a bit for electricity. OK, not really free. And you’re probably reading this at work, so your poor boss is paying for your time as well. Stop that.
But you (or your bosses) are paying for the delivery, not the clever words and pretty pictures. The vehicle, not the content.
The caricature of me on this page (a remarkable likeness, though I do not smoke cigars and I do not have a tail) was created by First Dog on the Moon, cartoonist for paid news site Crikey.
I didn’t pay him for it. (Should I have, Dog?)
A while back he spent considerable personal time generously giving away caricatures to Twitter followers to use as avatars.
Now First Dog’s work usually resides behind a paywall - although no doubt even then it is picked up and shared around on the web by fans.
But Crikey’s subscribers pay real dollars for the regular, easy delivery of their daily dogonthemoon (and other cranky Crikey stuff) to their virtual doorstep, without having to search around or rely on the kindness of strangers. The vehicle, not the content.
The revolution will continue, and there will be winners and there will be losers, and more rude words will be said.
The mathematics of who pays for what will change - but it will almost certainly be about the delivery rather than the goods.
News will continue to be free (unfettered) and free (relatively free of charge). And news organisations will survive - perhaps slimmer and more agile, but they’ll still be here, hopefully comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. And paying me.
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