New business models do not seem to offer the definitive solution. Who should be helping out the content industries? Those transporting the bits and bytes, or those putting advertisements next to (copies of) those bits and bytes? Or both?
Having survived more than 40 years at the coalface of British journalism (longer than a term of service in the ancient Roman army), I have been feeling a bit depressed lately by the insistent predictions of media pundits that the internet is killing off quality newspapers. There are very few people in the trade who are prepared to bet that all our daily papers will still be publishing newsprint copies in five years’ time.
According to conventional wisdom, print is doomed. Circulations are collapsing because readers can get everything they want on the internet. Not only do those readers dislike the idea of paying to read online, but the existence, among other sites, of the rival licence-fee-payer-funded BBC website guarantees that they will never actually need to pay for a supply of reliable day-to-day news. Paywalls will never really work in a UK context for that reason.
Yet when the day comes that the newspapers are forced to stop printing altogether, it will be a disaster for democracy. The lean pickings from web advertising on a free newspaper site will only pay for a fraction of the high-quality investigative journalism that commercial newspapers generate. We’ll just get the timid BBC on the one hand, and superficial junk on the other.
In this glum frame of mind, I read the latest National Readership Survey figures. To my surprise, what leaped out from them was that there is now in existence a perfectly easy way to rescue newspapers, ensure media plurality, and monetise the web.