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Don’t build a pay-wall laager; just do a deal with the plumbers

Take a gathering of the retired editors in February 2010. They’re putting their greying heads together to judge this year’s Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Journalism Awards.

They are veterans of maybe 500 years spent in newspapers, and they’re celebrating the contribution of their industry to society. Stories that sizzle.

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Like surprising Shabir Shaik at the shops, when he’s supposed to be on his death bed. Uncovering an epidemic of bullying at larney Jo’burg schools. Fat cats milking Land Bank funds intended for emerging farmers.

A new government pledged to the poor – and its ministers pandering to privilege by acquiring top range cars as their official vehicles. Ponzi schemes and prisons graft.

Without newspapers bringing these stories to light, it’s unlikely we’d know any of this. It was the people working in the press – not in broadcasting or online – who performed this public service.

But all is not well in the world of newspapers, even in South Africa where publishers daily give thanks for the limited extent of internet connections.

But they know smartphones are coming. And they look to the USA as an ultimate mirror of the future: one in which print media is ailing terribly.

Ten years hence, will an era have passed – even in South Africa?

The deeper question in this is not whether printed papers will exist in 2020. It is whether there will be the economic basis to support the kind of journalism that they currently do.

To look ahead, one can look behind. In 1995, American newspapers pooled their content in portal called “New Century Network”. But they couldn’t reach consensus, and soon it was back to each (watch)dog seeing to its own interests.

Many of them thought, understandably, that just as radio stations could make good business assembling audiences with free content, and on-selling them to advertisers, the same model could work for newspapers in cyberspace.

What few foresaw at the time was how advertising works differently online to print or broadcast. As the harsh reality set in, their newspapers were bleeding badly in both print and on the web.

The backlash began in earnest last year, hastened by the recession. Publishers lashed out at Google; they beat up on themselves for the original “sin” of offering free online content.

Desperate steps are now being taken – like charging for news online. But from the New York Times, to the local Mail & Guardian, this trick has been tried without success.

The obstacles to it working remain in place:

  • Why would anyone pay when there are substitutes available without charge –from aggregators, bloggers, public service media, pirates, or news from the sources direct?
  • Why would anyone pay without a simple and universal micro-payment system to do so? Think of purchase disincentives in the physical world – like scrabbling to find the right change for a newspaper before the traffic lights change. Paying per article or publication on the web is worse.

Nevertheless, South African newspapers are planning to follow the foreign lemmings, and leap over the pay-wall cliff.

It amounts to trying to fight what technology can do, by building a prison to stop information from escaping.

Instead of a fortress, newspapers need even more technology. You don’t counter climate change by going back to the 16th century; you go forward faster. The same goes with the press.

So, what’s needed is thinking about how to harness (not hinder) the trends in the new platforms. One way is to overcome silos, and to develop industrial convergence – between the sectors of media and telecoms/internet.

Newspapers need to appreciate that the culture of cellphone ringtones shows some acceptance of paying for certain kinds of content. And the micro-payment model exists in cellspace.

You may argue that if the New Century Network failed to converge newspaper firms, how much more difficult is to bring about partnerships between media, telecoms and internet companies?

On the other hand, if there’s not a deal struck between those doing content and those doing electronic distribution, there will be that much less information to flow through the pipes. Each sector needs the other, and each has an interest in developing a mutually sustainable eco-system.

One form of this, common in many parts of the world, recognises the public interest in having content producers compensated. This is through various mechanisms – “needle time” in the radio industry, “collection societies” (like Dalro and Samro in South Africa), or the levy on Internet Service Providers in Canada.

The specific terms of these arrangements are fiercely fought over. But the longer it takes for content people to talk to those who control the means of distribution, the weaker their position becomes. That’s exactly what happened to NBC and the Apple I-Store in the USA.

In South Africa, the captains of the newspaper industry should be talking, as a bloc, with the cellphone providers. Yesterday, already.

They owe it to the veterans who helped build their business and who are judging their journalists’ current work. They owe it to existing journalist employees to find ways to avoid 25% of newsroom jobs being lost (the USA scenario).

More than this, finding long-term revenue sources to professional journalism, is a quest in the public interest – a newspaper cause that could be shared by the telecoms and internet sectors.

After all, who else will deliver the award-winning stories, for all platforms, if not a partnership of institutions that reinvent the business model for the media?

  • Prof Guy Berger convenes the judging panel of the Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Journalism Awards. He is head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, and founder of the School’s New Media Lab (NML).

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