Rusbridger v. walls

Just as The New York Times announces its pay wall, Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger gives an important speech on the topic — indeed, on the very nature of journalism — arguing against pay walls.

Charging, Rusbridger says, “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.”

In an industry in which we get used to every trend line pointing to the floor, the growth of newspapers’ digital audience should be a beacon of hope. During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40 per cent more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company – you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape – has grown its audience by 40 per cent in a year. More Americans are now reading the Guardian than read the Los Angeles Times. This readership has found us, rather than the other way round. Our total marketing spend in America in the past 10 years has been $34,000. . . .

This is the opposite of newspaper decline-ism, the doctrine which compels us to keep telling the world the editorial proposition and tradition we represent are in desperate trouble. When I think of the Guardian’s journey and its path of growth and reach and influence my instincts at the moment – at this stage of the revolution – are to celebrate this trend and seek to accelerate it rather than cut it off. The more we can spread the Guardian, embed it in the way the world talks to each other, the better.

Rusbridger warns The NY Times that if it shrinks behind its wall, The Guardian could become the biggest newspaper brand online. He imagines start-ups that “begin each day with a prayer session for all national newspapers to follow Rupert Murdoch behind a pay wall. That’s their business model.” His warning continues: “Let’s not leave the field so that the digital un-bundlers can come in, dismantle and loot what we have built up, including our audiences and readers.

Rusbridger argues, as do I, that this is about more than a revenue line:

There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started – here, in newspapers, in the UK . It’s not a “digital trend” – that’s just shorthand. It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.

As {legendary Gaurdian editor C.P.] Scott said 90 years ago : “What a chance for the newspaper!” If we turn our back on all this and at the same time conclude that there is nothing to learn from it because what ‘they’ do is different – ‘we are journalists, they aren’t: we do journalism; they don’t’ – then, never mind business models, we will be sleep walking into oblivion.

  • http://tongstromberg.com Lars Tong Strömberg

    Good summary. Rusbridger understands what is happening and Guardian is definitely in the forefront among traditional media in the ongoing digital revolution.

    The only part I don´t agree with him is when he says “It’s not a digital trend” because digital is the enabler of all that is happening. The whole trend is due to the fact that you cannot stop the digitalized free flowing information and you cannot place it in a walled garden.

  • http://www.subhub.com Evan Rudowski

    Jeff, you and Rusbridger continue to focus on the false construct of “pay walls.”

    It’s an easy thing to rail against, but it’s not so black and white. There are plenty of opportunities to create paid content products alongside a core free product. Certainly the Guardian, with its tremendous talent, is capable of this.

    But by going so far out on a limb in opposition to an oversimplified concept, paywalls, Rusbridger makes it harder for the Guardian to ever consider developing paid content opportunities. And he makes his own views needlessly more absolutist and therefore less relevant to what is really happening out there.

    I addressed this further in the comments on the Paid Content website, also available on my blog here: http://bit.ly/7DjSga

    (While we’re on the subject of being open to the conversation, Jeff, why don’t you implement Disqus in your own comments so that discussions that happen here can be open to the web? Right now your comments (and by extension your blog) are a cul de sac where the discussion only happens here and is not linked to the wider conversation. For those of us who want to be part of the broader discussion, commenting on BuzzMachine is unfulfilling because it goes nowhere else. Do you prefer it that way, or are you planning to address this?)

    Best wishes,
    Evan

    • cm

      I agree with this idea. It does not have to be binary. Pay-walling some content might be an excellent way to reach some sort of compromise.

      We see some parallels in open source software development. How do the open source developers and companies get paid? By various mechanisms. Some achieve this by giving away some stuff free and providing premium services/product to others. Some have sponsorship deals form big companies (IBM, Google etc). Some dual license (eg. free to Linux users, pay for commercial licenses).

      Finding the right balance for news will be difficult and might be impossible for some markets (eg. entertainment news and other low-brow reporting ) but might be very feasible for higher value political and business analysis and material (eg, maybe WS, Guardian etcJ).

      There has generally been a race for the bottom and, as people realise that internet does not equate to free, people are going to be increasingly prepared to pay for quality.

      That is not really any different from how it was with print. Why pay for for a WSJ than Time (assuming it does cost more :-))? Well I value WSJ more than Time so would be prepared to put money on the counter whereas I would not do that for Time.

  • http://www.easycash4life.com Annette

    I believe that Rusbridger knows exactly what will happen and his forsight will come thru.
    He is a man we shoud really pay attention to.

  • Eric Gauvin

    I agree with Even Rudowski. Why not have both free and paid content. “Arguing against paywalls” as you put it seems to be missing a lot.

    Please comment on all the exciting things that are just around the corner with the Apple tablet and paid content:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/technology/26apple.html?pagewanted=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

  • Tom

    Guardian News and Media losing £100,000 a day, and cut dozens of journalists the other day. Its own MD described the company’s performance as unsustainable.

    http://is.gd/74MP8

  • http://muhammadsaleem.com Muhammad Saleem

    Could not have said it better:

    “It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.”

    Alan really gets it. The industry will probably label him a madman today. They will realize their mistake in a few years. A few short years if Mutter’s calculations are correct.

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  • Tony Becker

    Jeff, I would like to hear what you have to say about Rusbridger’s opposition to “digital un-bundlers.” Isn’t that sort of thing required, in order to produce the hyper-personal news stream?

    Don’t get me wrong, I like the Guardian Maybe it, or other large players, can still think of themselves as having a mass audience — but isn’t the winner going to be the one who figures out how to be a player in a news ecosystem, and not the one who tries to maintain control over that audience?

  • http://sputnik.pl/ Michal Tatarynowicz

    One would think that the newspapers should feel unburdened by the move to digital. Now they can write as much as they want, change their front page every five minutes if they so desire, publish individual stories as they unravel to have them delivered to readers within seconds, and they can even lower the cover price of their publications to zero, since they virtually eliminated distribution costs.

    How can Murdoch et all keep spinning free distribution of information as the end of journalism is beyond me. It’s like if a free energy device was invented and it was immediately hailed as the end of electronics industry.

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  • wanderindiana

    Journalistic content is a commodity or intellectual property and should always have been treated as such by media corporations.

    The construction of an advertising-driven online news model was an abject failure; it is about time newspapers (and others) wise up and start demanding compensation for their product from consumers. You never saw LexisNexis giving it away for free. Why should anyone have ever done so?

    Pay for content is the only viable future of news whether the operation is a couple of guys in pajamas in their mom’s basement or Sulzbergers at 620 Eighth Avenue.

  • Andy Freeman

    > it is about time newspapers (and others) wise up and start demanding compensation for their product from consumers.

    Go for it.

    However, remember that consumers have choices too and they don’t care about your business. They only care about the value that they get.

    If you’re producing content that is worth less to your customers than what you charge or that others are selling for less, you’re going to fail.

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  • Rodger Codger

    Remember them olden days when consumers were called human beings?

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  • http://www.makingofmoney.com Kevin Lampard

    I agree with Andy’s comment. You have to be competitive in the market. Not only with quality but with price as well. Consumers these days are very penny wise.

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    It is time we should be money wise.

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    I totally agree with you, Darren.

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