Paying for news

2009-11-05 00:00

You may have noticed The Witness has started charging for local stories on its website. And if that’s how you usually get your local news, then you’re probably feeling pretty­ irritated.

Some sites continue to allow free access, but others around the world and at home are trying different ways to get readers to pay their way, by requiring subscriptions, micro-payments (where you pay per article you download) or some other variation on the paywall theme. The Witness online has gone the subscription route, which will cost you just over R3 a day if you take the 12-month option.

Unless you’ve been living out of reception in a cave somewhere, you’ll know that times are tight and newspapers are in a fix, with readers and profits fading like old ink. In South Africa, in spite of falling circulations, no newspapers have gone to the wall yet. But in the United States a dozen large, reputable titles have closed down, as have 60-odd regional rags in the United Kingdom.

This tumultuous shake-out is being seen by some as not only the demise of newspapers, but the end of journalism and of democracy itself. It’s easy to get wound up about it, especially if your salary’s on the line. But if you take another view, newspapers in India look as healthy as ever and here at home the Zulu-language and tabloid media have boomed. As for democracy, the Internet has been hailed as the great democratiser of information, and good journalism has never been shackled to print.

However, the picture is grim. And no one has figured out how to fix things.There’s an awful lot of fiddling going on to buy time until an industry saviour comes charging along in the form of a never-imagined business model. Some have even suggested government-sponsored bail-outs. This sets all sorts of alarms ringing, with the greatest concern being that this would make rescued papers beholden to government. Why that should be more of a concern than being beholden to commerce isn’t obvious, but it raises the question of what exactly it is that needs saving: is it journalism, or the free flow of information, or the business of newspapers, or the timber industry (bearing in mind that trees are getting short shrift in this debate)?

The practice of journalism is not under threat for as long as there are knowledgeable, concerned citizens and professionals prepared to track down and verify facts about social dynamics. The journalistic profession, on the other hand, is under severe threat; it is increasingly difficult for media houses to devote adequate resources to the process of digging up socially useful news, as opposed to retaining teams of press-releasers or purveyors of gossip and bile. What sells is not always what matters. But cynics would argue that if it can’t sell, it doesn’t matter. In an ideal world, information would not be hitched to its economic worth, but to its social currency.

Once mined, information is useless unless it finds an audience. It is equally useless unless it has context, meaning and authority, the qualities that “reputable” newspapers have traditionally conferred on what they print. One of the drawbacks of the proliferation of media, and its free availability, is that news has become background noise. I’m tempted to say that information without truth has no value. But as the movie Starsuckers shows, fabricated celebrity “news” sells just as well if not better than the “real” stuff. The social implications of devalued information are potentially catastrophic, and if a functioning democracy is underpinned by an informed electorate, then yes, the institution is indeed under threat. A society without meaning is one without direction, and doesn’t that just give totalitarians a gap to take.

One of the questions that haunts journalists is whether the things we find interesting have any relevance. If people stop buying papers is it because they no longer serve a need? Or if the need still exists, is it better served elsewhere; online for example? Speed and convenience are as important as truth and trust. And we do wonder, as we lose readers, whether we have broken the compact of trust, and whether the truth we pursue is the one that matters to you.

But since I’m supposed to be getting you to reach for your wallet, let’s get back to the money. Is getting the news a democratic right? Or is news just a commodity like any other, where some people labour to create it and others pay to have it? The answer is a bit of both. The production of news is not a costless exercise. Someone always pays; either the reader, or the advertiser, or a mix of both. Paradoxically, given the nature of the media industry, it is necessary to pay to generate or maintain the free flow of information. Newspapers that have started charging for their online news (and this applies to The Witness as much as to global giants such as the Rupert Murdoch stable), are trying to find that elusive business model that allows not only for news to continue to be produced, but to generate the revenue to make the online medium viable, since that is clearly where increasing numbers of readers prefer to hang out.

You’d think it’s obvious that when papers are starved of revenue they can’t afford the luxury of throwing away money by giving away news. But it’s not an easy sell. A recent American survey showed that 55% of readers would be very unlikely to pay for online content. However, 81% said that pay sites such as the Wall Street Journal are good value. And that is our challenge: to continue to produce news, which, regardless of whether it appears in print or online, has value for you. Google gives you the world, but does anyone cover Maritzburg news better than The Witness? You be the judge.

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