Of paywalls and pandas

March 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, during the Globe and Mail Books reshuffle, a Melville House blog post asked “Who is more likely to read a newspaper than people who read books?” A few groups of people, perhaps, including political junkies and people who are truly interested in the world and hard news, but not many. Why, then, do newspapers across the world think it sensible to reduce books coverage?

The answer largely lies with advertising, of course. The Melville House blog post suggested that declining ad revenue is a poor argument for shrinking books coverage, since newspapers continue to cover the government even though they don’t generate income. Initially I thought this was a reasonable point, but it is, sadly, wrong. Hard news content is also shrinking, of course. When was the last time you read a “quality” newspaper without shouting “This is not news!” at it?

The Globe and Mail drew ire from readers by headlining Monday’s paper with Stephen Harper’s cynical-from-start-to-finish panda pandering. It is far from the only newspaper to prioritise soft news, of course. This kind of media whoring by politicians, in this case associating a party with a dreadful environmental record with the cuddly animal long associated with the World Wide Fund for Nature, is of a piece with lowest-common-denominator tax credits and other “make the story about something else” tactics. It’s spin and distraction, and should be outed as such by newspapers of all political persuasions instead of being blindly swallowed.

The pandas’ arrival had its place in the newspaper, but it wasn’t on the front page. And this lack of understanding of core readership is causing real problems for newspapers. As I mentioned above, people likely to read newspapers are book readers, politicos, news junkies (amateur or professional). These people are not likely to read panda stories and feel that they’re now fully informed about world events. The high page views come (I say with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, and with an uncharacteristic optimism about the intelligence level of my fellow humans) from people pootling around the net at work, looking for mindless distraction. But newspapers cannot compete (or not for long) on fluffy fronts with other websites disseminating non-news. Lifestyle sections, home decor, navel-gazing house price discussions, otherwise known as the victory of advertising, have all distracted newspapers from their real business (which I happen to think does include proper books coverage, along with discussion of other cultural activities and phenomena).

So then we come to the idea of how newspapers can stay in business. Two more newspapers introduced paywalls yesterday, The Sun and the Daily Telegraph, describing the current business model—readers getting journalism for free—as untenable. Print subscribers are dropping (as an aside, I can in fact no longer get the Globe and Mail delivered, thanks to the incredibly inefficient Canadian subscription model of each newspaper organising its own delivery routes) and people are getting their news, if they get any at all, from a wide variety of places.

The internet has changed everything, as we are fond of saying. It has changed both what we read and how we read it. Although I said earlier that book readers were likely to read a newspaper, the combination of having no subscription to a newspaper (who wants to go out and buy one after breakfast—prime newspaper reading time—is over?), the increase in books websites and blogs that are almost perfectly tailored to my interests and tastes, and the fluff-quotient of newspapers themselves means that I spend less time reading news—print and web—than I used to, and I suspect I am not alone. The internet gives us all the chance to immerse ourselves in an increasingly narrow, or at least increasingly specialised, interest, whether that is books, electric cars, or celebrity diets. Not having a paper to read cover to cover augments this effect: we no longer read stories just because they are there, gaining an almost accidental knowledge of world affairs; instead we tend to go deep rather than broad, being aware of only the headlines. We are all, perhaps, heading towards a level of general awareness that was previously the domain of all-day local rock station listeners.

The internet has also changed brand loyalty. I have a couple of main newspapers that I use (interesting how that verb, rather than read, suggested itself) to get news, but if I want to research something I will go to a much broader range of newspaper websites. Which brings me to my point about paywalls (which we can hope will result in a steep drop in page views for gossip and drivel, thus refocusing editorial direction and policy). Not many people will subscribe to more than one newspaper, if they subscribe at all. So why can’t we invent some kind of not-for-profit organisation that develops an app to allow newspaper readers to buy credit for ALL newspapers that sign up to it. People who have paid would be entitled to a certain number of monthly page views at each member newspaper, after which they could read as many articles they liked without having to worry about payment—a simple click to confirm the charge (which could be very low—a few pence or cents) as you entered that particular newspaper’s site. Non-subscribers would not have access to any newspapers.

This Oyster card for newspapers would allow newspapers to charge on a per-page basis; it would allow readers to read whatever they liked without constantly having to enter payment details (some of whom don’t even object to paying but do object to being locked into one subscription as well as to having to type in credit-card details); it might even wrest back some tiny speck of control from advertisers. No doubt to begin with people would still be glugging down the celebrity/panda rubbish, but surely soon people would ask why they were wasting their money on that guff, and people who liked celebrity/panda rubbish (who, I suppose I should acknowledge, might also be real newspaper readers) would find alternative and free places to read it.

But this is probably all too much like cooperation. Perhaps newspapers would rather all drown, on live television, in a hot tub with Justin Bieber, the royal foetus and a jetlagged panda.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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