Editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger made clear his feelings on paywalls and the growing importance of social media during the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp lecture yesterday, entitled 'Does journalism exist?' The Guardian reproduced the text of the lecture here.
Hugh Cudlipp was an editor at the Daily Mirror from the early 1950s to early 1970s,
a period in which, as Rusbridger pointed out, newspaper editors' key challenge was producing good editorial content, rather than trying to come up with a new business model, which is a top issue confronting all editors now. "No one can currently be sure about the business model for what we do," said Rusbridger, and by thinking about it "you can scare yourself into total paralysis."
Addressing the issue of paid online content, Rusbridger said that making people universally pay for your content might be the right direction in "business terms" but in "editorial terms" it reduces your access and influence. "It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world."
He also discussed it in terms of "'authority' versus 'involvement'": previously, journalists were in a unique position to deliver content and information, while as now, readers can and want to be able to contribute, to create their own content and interact with their peers. "People may also be less interested to receive journalism in an inert context," he said.
He highlighted that there was no agreement among publishers on whether or not the public should be directly charged for journalism, mentioning the "very vocal" Rupert Murdoch who is now asserting that the reader must pay a proper sum for content, compared to Alexander Lebedev, who made London's Evening Standard into a freesheet.
Rusbridger described moves to charge online as "a hunch:" there is no guarantee that it going to work.
Rusbridger believes that digital advertising may well pick up again "to dismiss the potential growth of digital right now - on the basis of the worst economic crisis since 1929 - may be a little premature." He pointed out that the Guardian made £25m from digital advertising last year, and said that his "commercial colleagues believe we would earn a fraction of that from any known pay wall model." The Guardian has looked at at least six different paywall proposals and is "currently unpersuaded," Rusbridger said.
With regards to mobile news, Rusbridger said "we're all at the start of an experiment that is fascinating but unknown." He refered to the Guardian's paid iPhone app, which sold 70,000 in its first month. And moving on to e-readers, he believes that this year will see "a fascinating struggle for dominance between the Kindle, the Sony reader, Plastic Logic's Que, the Skiff Reader and LG's 19-inch bendy e-journal," and said that as of Wednesday, the anticipated announcement of Apple's tablet might mean all these remarks are out of date.
Rusbridger said that he could not join in opposing the BBC, an organisation which has been criticized by those promoting paid online content because of the competition that its website provides. For one, Rusbridger said, "the BBC is almost certainly the best news organisation in the world - the most serious, comprehensive, ethical, accurate, international, wide-ranging, fair and impartial," and as a citizen he admires it. And if you compare the state of newspapers in the UK to the state of newspapers in the US where there is not such a prominent public service broadcaster to compete with, there is little difference. There is also another competitor to deal with: the Murdoch-owned Sky News also offers a free news web site.
"As an editor, I worry about how a universal pay wall would change the way we do our journalism," he continued. "Journalists have never before been able to tell stories so effectively, bouncing off each other, linking to each other (as the most generous and open-minded do), linking out, citing sources, allowing response - harnessing the best qualities of text, print, data, sound and visual media. If ever there was a route to building audience, trust and relevance, it is by embracing all the capabilities of this new world, not walling yourself away from them."
He explained how different it would be when reporting a big scoop such as the Guardian's revelation that Google was about to drop censorship in China if instead of bouncing around the world in seconds via Twitter and other social media, the story had been stuck behind a paywall. (Although obviously some paywalls, such as that planned by the New York Times, could include a "first click" option, meaning that the first click into the site was free.)
The ubiquity of blogs, social networks and of other sites, focused on the arts of books, for example, that freely invite contributions from the public as well as their own writers, means that it is "hard to sustain" the idea that "journalists are uniquely knowledgeable and insightful," said Rusbridger. Or in other words, newspaper content might not be considered valuable enough for many to pay for any more, as there are plenty of other ways to people to find out about the things they are interested in.
Rusbridger also highlighted the ways that a newspaper can "harness something of the web's power," listing examples from the Guardian's recent reporting: crowdsourcing the G20 protests and MP's expenses, or the Trafigura case, which was brought to public attention via Twitter.
The Guardian had a record 37 million readers visit its website in December 2009, approximately one third coming from the UK, one third from the US and one third from the rest of the world. And Rusbridger does not feel that the Guardian should cut itself off "from a revolution such as we're living through."