Thursday 21 November 2019

Declan Lynch: Editors need to read same hymn sheet

Declan Lynch looks at the start of 'paywall' online news and the disjointed reaction of traditional newspapers

On that great radio programme, Newstalk's Off The Ball, that great broadcaster Ken Early was talking to Jonathan Wilson, editor of Blizzard magazine, about the recent demise of various sports magazines in Spain and Italy. An obvious cause of death was the availability of high-class sportswriting in newspapers, for free, on the internet.

And as the conversation deepened, there was a good point, well made, about the sick relationship between newspapers and the internet -- that the best solution for newspapers, was for all of them to get together and to decide that they would henceforth be available on the internet only behind a paywall.

As it stands, you have to pay for Murdoch's papers, which naturally have slumped online by comparison with all the other papers which can be read for nothing. So it can only work, if they all do it.

Now, isn't that a very obvious thing? Wouldn't that be a pretty smart solution?

The newspaper industry agonises endlessly about the challenges of the internet, and flagellates itself for failing to develop a "business model" for the online age. But then there has never been a business model, and there will never be a business model, which is based on giving it away for free.

Already the Murdoch paywall is viewed as a failed business model. But would it fail if everyone else did the same thing?

According to Jonathan Wilson, there is a weird game of chicken going on, based on the assumption that if you are the last newspaper out there that can still be read for nothing online, when everyone else is charging for it, you will be a big winner. . . but of what?

Even if all the other papers take in twenty quid between them behind the paywall, that is still probably a few quid more than the big winner is getting.

In other industries, even supposedly bitter rivals seem to be able to get together for a spot of price-fixing and the like, whereas newspapers uniquely seem incapable of co-operating, not to form a cartel, but on fundamental issues of survival.

Partly, I guess, they started off in the wrong place, demented with fear and ignorance about the great god, Google, farming out that internet stuff to the nerds among them. And yet by giving themselves away, newspapers may have lost much, but they have also gained one absolutely critical advantage -- they have demonstrated just how good they are, by comparison with almost every other form of what might loosely be called "journalism" out there.

Compared to Wikipedia, for example, the lowliest provincial paper in the most remote part of the English-speaking world is virtually a work of art, composed by magnificent writers and laid out by geniuses who are not just profoundly devoted to The Truth, they are decent, law-abiding, and they actually write under their own names.

And if it wasn't for links to things that journalists have to be paid to produce, Twitter really would be just a bunch of people talking about what they had for breakfast. Even the vast hordes of anonymous hate-mongers out there would have little "content" on which to vent their rage if they couldn't click on to an article for free in order to declare of the author, "what a complete c**t"!

So while the internet has shown the value of newspapers, with their culture of accuracy and accountability which has been formed over a period of centuries, the very act of giving it away for nothing drains away all that value.

Maybe it's just a chronic lack of self-esteem on the part of newspapermen, which has caused this abject surrender to their inferiors on the internet. Like the plague of audience contribution which has destroyed so many radio and TV programmes, pandering to every braggart and blowhard out there, our industry has been mesmerised by the bullshit of the internet.

You can still hear respectable presenters on RTE for example, speaking with a certain note of mischief as they admiringly introduce a blogger, as if bloggers are members of a radical literary underground, when in fact for the most part they are just self-regarding bores without the writing talent or the commitment to the task that would get them a proper job in a newspaper.

Comically, there are actual journalists who do a bit of blogging on the side after knocking off from the real job, apparently typing up their leftovers to no apparent purpose except to reassure themselves that they have an "online presence".

Murdoch, by contrast, hardened his heart against all that a long time ago, simply regarding the great god Google as a thief, stealing his stories. And, of course, he is right.

Others continue their fearful babble about the death of newspapers, apparently unaware that by giving themselves away, newspapers are choosing suicide.

Sunday Independent

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