Tuesday 22 December 2009, 11:50
Rupert Murdoch has made the most noise in telling us that news is not a free good. But instead of his News International, the rather more modest Johnston Press has bravely decided to break ranks and try charging a subscription for premium content on some of its regional titles.
Online readers of three of its publications - the Whitby Gazette, Northumberland Gazette and Southern Reporter - now encounter a pay wall for some articles, requiring them to subscribe at a rate of Â£5 for three months.
When online news first went free - in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble - it certainly felt like lemmings rushing off the cliff. One after another, grand and less grand publications were overnight telling their customers that henceforth it was not just a seasonal reduction but everything in the shop was now being given away (with the exception of specialist financial news).
Extraordinary, when you think about it. And now we have a whole generation, including many of the students I teach, who take it for granted that news is free. Apparently it costs nothing to report, analyse and interpret.
This new audience might well have a look at the papers online and sometimes they even read a paper - but usually only a free one. Every morning when I look round the train carriage, the only newspaper in sight is the free Metro. When I unfold my paid-for paper I feel like a weirdo. Paying to read the news is so last century. And when you can indeed access every possible paper on your phone or laptop, it really does not make sense.
Except of course that news - especially reliable, informative and accurate news - is far from free. Even with a cornucopia of so-called citizen journalism, there is a need to verify, check and authenticate. And that is what is making Mr Murdoch very cross.
Despite all the talk, there is still no sign of a viable model for 'monetising' online news. Mr Murdoch has railed against it being free, but, unusually, he has done so without having an alternative route.
This is very unlike him. Just think back to the Wapping revolution in 1986. Whilst complaining about the greedy and unreasonable behaviour of the print unions, he was carefully orchestrating a whole new modus operandi for newspapers behind the high fences of Wapping. The rest of the world was told that News International was planning the launch of a new paper, the so-called 'London Post'. Journalists were even being offered jobs on it.
When the story broke in January 1986, there was no new paper but instead an extraordinary secret plan to bypass the unions and set up the whole operation (Sunday Times, Times, Sun etc) a couple of miles east of Fleet Street. As a result, the entire industry was transformed.
Yet on this occasion Murdoch does not, at least so far, seem to have a daring and revolutionary strategy to offer.
But he knows he is paying good money for experienced journalists and high-quality resources. For most other newspapers it's the same. Once they only had to invest in new printing presses or better distribution arrangements. Now they have lavished a fortune on beautiful websites and fancy online trickery - but the returns are minimal.
There may be millions reading them - all over the world - but that is not translating into an income stream. Online advertising is failing to deliver results. Meanwhile Google, which has found the key to online advertising, is indeed taking something for nothing. Aggregators are now the cool kids. But if everyone is aggregating, then who is supplying and gathering the material in the first place - actually producing the news?
The question is whether news is like water. Once, like online news, water was 'free'. Then we adjusted to paying cash for it - in bottles. Or at least enough of us did so to make it a very profitable industry. Will news follow that way?
The former BBC Newsnight editor Peter Barron, who heads Google's communications in the UK, is making friendly noises and saying that it never intended to upset anyone. Meanwhile it is the Whitby Gazette and its bedfellows that are venturing forth to try turning back the tide.
We all need to watch carefully what happens next. The future of news might well be at stake.