Free the news

2010-01-20 00:00

A NEWSPAPER is a thing of beauty. A journalist whom I knew once marvelled at how the newspaper he worked on during the day inevitably made it into the hole in his fence at dawn the next day. Fuelled on toasted egg-and- bacon­ sandwiches, a story passes from journalist to news editor to sub-editor and finally to the presses where giant rollers thunder on, in air pungent with ink, until, in the early hours, bales of newspapers are thrown down onto the pavement, tied up by the newspaper vendors and put in our post boxes while we sleep. It is about timing and a lot of heart.

That’s why it is a concern that, like many industries, the news- paper­ industry has been hard hit by the Great Readjustment (or whatever we are now calling it). Numerous newspapers around the globe are in dire straits and, locally, the Weekender printed its final edition at the end of last year. Consequently, some newspapers are grooming the public, in the nicest way, to pay for online news, citing shrinking advertising revenues.

The United Kingdom’s Times is promising to rewrite the economics of newspapers with plans to charge for its online content. It claims that this will make quality journalism more affordable. (However, it has been said that Internet journalism can be qualitatively different from print journalism. Whereas online journalism is focused on swift news gathering, with errors of fact easily edited the next hour or day, print journalists have to take greater care, as each print edition constitutes a matter of public record).

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) is the largest paid-content news site on the web, charging for some stories in its digital edition. It also has the largest circulation of any United States newspaper. However, unlike the WSJ, most newspapers could not sell scarce content that benefits the reader in a material way (as happens with the finance professionals who subscribe to WSJ). Most readers will pay for cut flowers and serial cups of cappuccino before they’ll pay for online content. Simply because the Internet is full of free news, there are interesting events elsewhere in the world, and frankly, we are easily distracted. At best, the generic reader might pay for online content from a publication such as Consumer Report, once every five years when he or she is in the market for a car.

The loss of readers is the biggest fear newspapers have in opting to charge for online news. In early 2000 when I was in Toronto, I found myself unable to read the Mail & Guardian online without paying. It was a rude shock. This was the newspaper that a generation of us had bought religiously every Friday. The newspaper confirmed that when it was owned by MWeb, for a brief period, the Mail & Guardian’s content was behind a paywall, limited to subscribers only. According to Chris Roper, editor of Mail & Guardian Online:“You could buy an MWeb select membership, but few did.” It was, he said, an Internet service provider business (ISP) decision and not really about selling content. Regardless of the reason, it impacted negatively on my consumer loyalty. Instead of paying, I sourced my news elsewhere.

While governments, industries and financial institutions have rethought many practices since the global credit crunch, so too has the public. We stopped buying cappuccinos and cut flowers, we changed where we shopped, we scrutinised our financial advisers and we began to take more responsibility for our futures, the existential ones. It has been a time of lost innocence, where the public has realised that it isn’t always a good idea to trust that their best interests are being served. In short, we got off the floral-print couch and started paying attention.

So what will we do when yet another part of the economy advances on us? Well, we just might not take it very well.

We might contend that the public right to know is one of the foundations of democracy and not something to be milked. We might charge that it is elitist to have a sector of society privy to news that is not immediately available in print. This is particularly salient in Africa where the majority of people don’t have access to the Internet.

And then there is the wry observation that local news is sourced from the public, where it is mostly made freely available to news- papers­ which package it up, add value and sell it back to us. Readers accept this because they understand that newspapers need to pay for themselves. However, there is something sacrosanct about the free exchange of information on the Internet, something better left intact.

What alternatives do struggling newspapers have, if they are to avoid closure or tricky measures such as selling online content? Well, we’ve had the slow-food movement, slow cities, slow travel, slow art, and slow parenting, maybe it’s time for slow news. Slow news might sound like a contradiction in terms until we reflect that if we don’t actually­ act on most of the news we read, there is little point in receiving it in nanoseconds. News of climate change, for example, has not resulted in breakneck responses.

Therefore, if we have to choose between losing our favourite daily read, or reading it only every second day (or whenever it is to be printed), we might find the latter quite acceptable. Slow news could be a more considered read. One could argue that the Mail & Guardian­ has long been an example of slow news. Rather slow news than a diminished pool of news- paper­ voices, with some of the more interesting ones silenced due to economics.

And if this isn’t enough, struggling newspapers could also enlist the help of citizen journalists, members of the public who assist with news gathering. This kind of volunteering could even redefine news as a value rather than the commodity it has become.

Incidentally, volunteering is an ethos much valued in countries such as Canada. Although the cliché “be the change” has made it to this continent, the action has not. In these countries, if you don’t like the litter in the wilderness, you pick it up. I spent a summer cleaning up a small forest outside our home in Yellowknife. I dragged old furniture, doors and cardboard, etc, out of the forest. And my boys learnt first-hand about where change begins. Because the world isn’t ideal anywhere and wherever you go there’s work to be done.

The global credit crunch has undoubtedly brought hardship and change. However, not all change is bad. We might find that the more we involve ourselves in the caretaking of news, the more we will respond to news. This can only be a good thing.

And, yes, surprisingly, the domain name is still available.

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