Friday, 7 August 2009

This story is free of charge (for now)

Spare a thought for poor, evil, union-smashing billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who's feeling the pinch of a struggling economy. Licking his wounds this week, he announced that his media empire News Corp was reporting a $3.4-billion net loss for the last year. Blaming this astonishing lack of success on falling advertising revenue and a weak economic environment, he was characteristically pragmatic about the whole thing.

But you don't get to be Mr. Burns' mentor without having a few despicable plots up your Armani sleeve, and Murdoch is no exception. His big idea? To charge visitors to his vast network of news sites (including The Times, The Sun and News of the World) for access to content. Murdoch said "The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels but it has not made content free."

Opinions are divided as to whether or not this revenue generation idea is a good thing or not. Tim Luckhurst, a journalism professor at the University of Kent, thinks that Murdoch is very clever and "striking a blow for journalistic integrity" by charging for content. According to Luckhurst, Murdoch's stroke of genius was to recognise that 1,000 paying readers are worth more than five million people reading for free, but that has little to do with protecting the reputation of the discipline. In fact, the real impact of the internet was to democratise the dissemination of news by aggregating existing content, aided in no small part by the growth of the blogosphere. And limiting 'news' access to paying subscribers achieves the exact opposite.

Murdoch's viewpoint is that "Quality journalism is not cheap," despite the fact the he has waged a war on the cost of journalism for several decades. In doing so, he has driven the industry's increasing reliance on the Associated Press and Thomson Reuters for most of their news sources. Those stories that don't come from the two surviving news agencies are little more than glorified press releases, with a clear commercial agenda. Look at it this way, it's like asking cable subscribers to pay for the ad breaks between the shows they actually want to watch.

As for Murdoch's comment about quality journalism, it's a little like Ronald McDonald striking a blow for gourmet cuisine. Only this week, the News of the World was causing a fuss yet again with a deliberately misleading story based on half-baked information and insinuation. Wilfully overlooking the historical context of Robert Downey Jr's comments about the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Watson, they suggested that Guy Ritchie's forthcoming film will imply a gay relationship between the two protagonists.

Within 24 hours Murdoch's New York Post was running the same story, even inviting conservative critic Michael Medved to weigh in on the subject: "Making Holmes and Watson homosexual will take away two-thirds of their box office. Who is going to want to see Downey Jr. and Law make out?" But why let truth get in the way of a good story, especially when you can make money out of it?

Still, I'll be interested to see whether News Corp will be willing to pay all the gossip sites, blogs and other news sources that they regularly cannibalise in the interest of posting a quick and dirty 'exclusive'. After all, good journalism costs money, right?

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