Yes, Murdoch Is Taking a Risk but Don't Write off His Paywall; MEDIA ANALYSIS

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 31, 2010 | Go to article overview

Yes, Murdoch Is Taking a Risk but Don't Write off His Paywall; MEDIA ANALYSIS


Byline: Roy Greenslade

RUPERT MURDOCH came in for a battering after the official announcement that The Times and Sunday Times will be charging for access to their online editorial content from June.

One of the world's leading internet gurus, Jeff Jarvis, greeted the news by calling it "Rupert's pathetic paywall" and argued that the media mogul had "declared surrender". It was an admission "that he has no new ideas to build advertising. He has no new ideas to build deeper and more valuable relationships with readers and will send them away if they do not pay".

Murdoch's latest biographer. Michael Woolf, was also scathing. It was draconian, he wrote, and designed to "keep you from reading his papers online. His plan is not to create an online business or, even, to realise significant additional revenues from online readership.

The plan is to get you to read newspapers -- as in papers."

Several writers at The Guardian (where I write a daily media blog) weighed in with critical comments too. Its digital media correspondent, Jemima Kiss, was sceptical about "a kamikaze paywall", pointing out that the idea had been widely dismissed because "it contradicts the experience of news publishers to date in trying to charge for their core, general news product".

Emily Bell, Guardian News and Media's director of digital content, wrote: "Those of us who have been around the paywall block a few times, and there have been many guided tours over the past decade, see it as a very risky and sometimes philosophically unpalatable option." I am certainly in the anti-paywall camp and remain sceptical about its effectiveness, but I also find myself at odds with Jarvis and Woolf. By contrast, the core of Bell's argument was subtle and stimulating, so I will come back to that.

No one disputes that journalism requires funding and that the retreat of advertising from paid-for print newspapers has proved to be profoundly challenging. Similarly, the discovery that advertising volume and revenues would not simply flow from print to screen was a major disappointment, if not a disaster, for all publishers.

I have often observed that I'm not worried about the fate of newspapers, but the fate of journalism. How can we preserve a public service that, not to be too pompous about it, is a key -- arguably the key -- bulwark of our democracy? I also admit that I have changed my mind several times in the past five years or so. Though I believe the internet is a democratising instrument, offering a seemingly limitless number of people the opportunity to converse with each other and also enabling them to challenge the certainty that turned us journalists into secular priests, I have had grave doubts about the dismantling of mainstream media. If we are to hold big government and big business to account we need big media.

This does not mean that we must preserve giant, global media organisations, such as Murdoch's, at all costs. But, seen from the opposite perspective, nor can we afford to place our faith in smallscale journalistic operations that lack the muscle to make a difference.

There can be little doubt that Murdoch's initiative has more do with commerce than public service. …

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