Is paying for news bad news?

NewspapersYou’ve most likely read or heard about the various news agencies starting to erect “pay walls” around their Web sites – that is, instead of being able to view the content for free, you’ll have to pay or subscribe before you can access it. The problem is that content has traditionally been delivered via a physical medium, i.e. paper, which consumers have been happy to pay to receive. As physical beings we implicitly understand when we get a wad of printed material, that it includes the total cost of its production, manufacture and delivery. Online however, the lines are blurred. We already pay for the distribution medium, i.e. internet access, so if the publisher is charging separately for the content and we get nothing more than information (which in the case of news is so fleeting and transient), we feel as if we’re being ripped off.

The Internet has devalued information. Take the Encyclopaedia Britannica for instance – once the epitome of human knowledge, now relegated to bit-player by the likes of Wikipedia. Here’s the interesting thing about Wikipedia: it is nothing more than a repository of information sourced from brains like yours and mine, written down (or typed out, as it were). Everybody knows something. It might be common knowledge such as “the sky is blue” or it might be highly specialised knowledge, but if it’s in your head it costs you nothing to access. Taking this idea further, maybe your mum works for Centrelink (hi mum!), you have a friend who is a doctor, or you attend church and know the pastor. Therefore when you have a question about government benefits, health, or religious views, you can simply ask those people and again, it costs you nothing to get that information (other than maybe time, both yours and theirs). Now imagine that you’re friends with the whole world – and you’ve got Wikipedia.

Holding hands

But back to news. News is one of those things where timing is everything. Also, you don’t just want to hear one side of the story – in order to make up your own mind you need to get a balanced view of the topic. Hence – and this is just a partially formed opinion – the value that Journalism adds to the ecology described above, and the areas that it should focus on, are announcing and aggregating.

  • If a happening is of interest, and pertinent to you and your social circle, you’ll eventually hear about it through the grapevine. An announcement means not only that you know about it as soon as possible, but that it is as close to first-hand as possible so that it doesn’t suffer from the Chinese Whispers effect.
  • For complex issues, particularly in the area of politics, people will inevitably take sides and therefore be biased. Journalism, therefore, is a unique profession in that its workers are paid to thoroughly investigate both sides of an issue and report on it in a fair and unbiased manner. (Whether that happens in reality and how successful they are is a whole other kettle of fish.)

If media outlets were successful in delivering that, I’d be happy to pay for it. Sadly most news sources today are soundly beaten by a bunch of nerds on the Internet with blogs funded through advertising. Many of these are even quite reputable now, like Ars Technica – one of my regular haunts – which was bought by Condé Nast Publications a couple of years ago.

There’s talk of a resurgence of pay-for news as publishers look to the Apple iPad as their saviour, stitching up content deals and offering new interactive media experiences. But it’s foolish hope, since any amateur with a bit of design skill can offer a compelling interface – just look at the plethora of rags-to-riches stories brought on by the iPhone. If there’s any hope of salvation for the news industry, it’s going come from providing something greater than simply communicating information, which the Internet is already helping more and more people to do each day.