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Sunday, 15 April 2012

Pay for news online, or pay the price

Probably most of the content online is not journalism. Yes, it was written by someone, but who? We can get an idea from a recent segment on the ABC's Media Watch, which was about the Australian Football League (the AFL) and its move into producing its own content for its own website. The AFL has hired 40 journalists to do this. They're being paid by the body whose sport they cover, to cover that sport. They're not independent. In fact, they're not strictly journalists at all. They're PR agents.

Another clue comes from a story by the Sydney Morning Herald's media writer, Julian Lee. In the story he talks about an outfit in Sydney called King Content which pays writers to produce blog posts and other content for corporate clients. Some of these people may be journalists but what they're writing isn't journalism. Lee also talks about the McDonalds TV program that was aired recently in Australia, McDonalds Gets Grilled. These instances reflect a trend in the media where the quantum of content that is produced by journalists is waning, and the quantum of content that is produced by paid writers is rising. And every day, Australian journalists in the mainstream receive hundreds of press releases prepared by PR agents that they go through looking for likely stories. Parts of those press releases are incorporated into the final story that appears on the newspaper website, tacked onto original interviews and other material that the journalist has made him- or herself.

Readers selfishly expect to consume news stories for free and when asked if they are willing to pay for them, they couch their negative responses in the guise of tropes taken from the era of civil protest. "The people," they say, will decide. But what they don't see - because newspaper companies don't routinely talk to the people about their economic fortunes publicly - is that the media is suffering. Those news stories that you rely on for information are becoming a rare commodity. You may not like journalists, or you may not like tabloid newspapers, but if those vehicles for content disappear the society you live in will change for good.

"People need to understand that they are the product of Facebook and not the customer," says media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff. And the same applies for online content. If you are not paying a price for the story that you read, then you are being sold to someone else for their commercial purposes. The problem for the media is that the clicks that they monetise and that you provide are not paying them enough to support the model indefinitely. Which is why Rupert Murdoch  has turned the Australian and the Herald-Sun into paid-for websites. He's moving cautiously. He has many other news websites in Australia to still get to, but they will all go paid eventually. As will Fairfax, which operates the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age of Melbourne. It has to happen.

Someone has to pay for the content you read. It isn't cheap to produce. Journalists have mortgages and journalists have private health insurance and journalists eat food, just like you do. You may not like journalists but you depend on them. A democracy cannot function without their involvement on a daily basis. It's just not possible. So you are not just paying to read a few stories a day, if you take out a subscription to a newspaper website. You are paying for the functioning of society. You are investing in healthy, productive political and civil mechanisms. You are contributing to the wellbeing of your fellow citizens, and ensuring that your own future is not sold down the river to the highest bidder. You are engaged. You are contributing. You are making a difference.

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