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If you think you can keep getting great journalism for free, you're deluded

Date

Andrew Stafford

Citizen journalism and bloggers can't do what the newspapers have done.

IN 2001, American alt-country singer Gillian Welch released a song that, in her ever-so-quiet way, excoriated the download generation. Everything is Free made a crucial observation: that musicians, artists and writers would keep creating content regardless of whether anyone actually wanted to pay for it or not.

''Everything is free now,'' she sang plaintively. ''That's what they say/Everything I ever done/Gotta give it away/Someone hit the big score/They figured it out/That we're gonna do it anyway/Even if it doesn't pay.''

That drive - the physical compulsion to create - has always been at the centre of the artist's core. They don't choose to live in penury as such: poverty is simply the most common byproduct of the fact that one doesn't really choose to be an artist, either. It's something that more often chooses you. Welch wrote the song just before file-sharing service Napster was taken to the cleaners in the courts, but the damage was already done. Who wanted to pay for anything they could get free any more? Loudon Wainwright put Welch's viewpoint more pungently in another song, Something For Nothing: ''It's OK to steal, cause it's so nice to share.''

Which brings me to a brief selection of comments on The Age's website that followed the news on Monday that it would be moving to a paid subscription model.

''There is no need to pay for news when it's so readily available on the internet for free,'' says ''Problem?'' ''People won't pay for the news when an alternative source is just a mouse click away,'' concurs ''The Redback''. ''You charge for online and you will be destroyed,'' threatens ''Tony''.

And then this: ''If you want to sell more papers, inprove [sic] the quality of your articles and pay journalists what they are worth,'' says ''Homer Ridgemoore''. Pay them more? With what, exactly? You simply can't pay for journalists, or anything approaching serious journalism, without a secure revenue base.

It's the collapse of that base, of course, that's resulted in the staff sackings, the outsourcing of sub-editing and rationalising of content. Most critically, the resources required for the pursuit of serious and lengthy investigations conducted in the name of the public interest are in real jeopardy.

There's rarely the time for those investigations, either. The impatience of the 24-hour news cycle ensures that. A diminution of quality and diversity is the inevitable result. Fair enough, then, that no one wants to pay for a dodgy product. They should surely, though, be prepared to pay for a better one.

Of course, readers never underpinned the salaries of journalists - advertising did that - so no one blames consumers for the parlous state of the industry. But if the likes of Homer and Tony don't think their sense of entitlement isn't even a little cog in this vicious circle, they're kidding themselves.

It's one thing to chip away at the already pitiful incomes of songwriters by downloading. Welch and Wainwright, with worldwide fan bases, are probably two of the luckier ones. And, as Welch promised, they're gonna do it anyway.

But if you think you're entitled to high-quality news content for nothing - and will continue to get it - then you're not only deluded, you're chipping away at something much bigger. Other than the ideologues concerned only with the destruction of their enemies, we've all got a stake in maintaining a plurality of voices in this country.

As Martin McKenzie-Murray pointed out last week, while it's true the internet has provided us with a greater diversity of voices than ever before, we can't expect citizen journalists to uncover the stories that really matter while working around their day jobs.

Nor can we expect their work to be treated with the same respect. That may sound like an odd thing to say, given that trust in commercial media is at a low ebb, but in the corridors of power at least, working for an old masthead still carries with it the force of imprimatur that a blogger will never have. If readers genuinely want to see traditional news media survive and thrive online into the next millennium, then one thing they're going to have to let go of is the idea that they can have it for nothing. Unfortunately, that idea's been allowed to take root for more than a decade.

Without readers who are willing to take some ownership of the news media themselves - in the same way they used to when the morning papers they subscribed to were tossed on their front lawns - the 1900 people about to be thrown out of work will be just the beginning.

Some of them, at least, might take solace in Welch's words. ''I could get a straight job/I've done it before/Never minded working hard/It's who I'm working for.''

Andrew Stafford is the Brisbane-based author of Pig City and an Age contributor. He gives work away free at andrew-stafford.blogspot.com.au

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51 comments

  • What constitutes great journalism? Is it simply the work of those who presume they practice?

    And how many journalists is too many? On that, I suppose, the authority might be the ABC.

    Commenter
    GJH
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 27, 2012, 8:20AM
    • Actually, the ABC and SBS are the only networks showing decent documentaries, panel shows, and current affairs. Kerry Packer would turn in his grave if he saw what 60 Minutes has become and Gina Reindhart got that terrible Andrew Bolt his own show on Channel 10. The commercial networks are terrible.

      Commenter
      Daniel
      Location
      Newtown
      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 1:59PM
    • 60 Minutes is no longer regular viewing since A Current Affair tabloid alumni - Tara Brown, Ben Fordham and Alison Langdon started reporting for it.

      I can't even enjoy Lateline like I used to, with ACA alumni Emma Alberici fronting the desk. What was with the interaction between Emma Alberici and Helen Brown a few nights ago discussing the sinking boat? It sounded like there was some tension with slightly interrogative interviewing from Emma Alberici when she was just meant to be eliciting information.

      Commenter
      Tristan
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 2:17PM
    • Agree ....
      but hang on who is saying fairfax media websites don't currently make money from a multitude of advertising all over their websites & in nearly every video shown.
      Come on....
      As with everything there has to be double dipping of charging to meet the high costs of expensive elaborate management structures & over the top running costs.
      All these large companies have relied on, & forecast unreliable or unsustainable growth it seems, & then the belt tightening occurs.
      Every CEO has to out do the one before it or they have to try & build a way to improve revenues in current climate.

      Commenter
      Free
      Location
      Media
      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 2:25PM
  • I'm happy to pay for high-quality news, features and investigative journalism, however, Fairfax has muddled with digital news delivery for years and still hasn't got the model right.

    The quality of sub-editing has fallen away and the intrusive pop-up ads are clunky. I try to read The Age's mobile web site on my Android phone and layout and accessibility still need to be improved. Promise a lift in standards and I'll provide my debit card details.

    Commenter
    Queen Cersei
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    June 27, 2012, 8:26AM
    • Andrew put his finger on it when he said that the salaries of journalists have never been paid for by the people who buy newspapers. This is why paywalls don't work. I didn't say won't work, they don't work. A million people or more have signed up for the New York Times three-month paywall free trial, but a very small proportion then sign on for a paid subscription; the product isn't seen as worth the cost. Why would it? We've never had to pay directly before; why start now? You can bleat about the 'everything is free' generation, but we were never the people actually paying for quality journalism.

      Commenter
      Atom
      Location
      Melbourne and Los Angeles
      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 8:44AM
      • Maybe not but the mainstream media is not giving many of us what we want - that is fearless, unbiased news reporting.

        Some of the best recent political reporting has been from sites such as Vexnews and Independent Australia; the former looking into the Slipper setup by Ashsby, Brough and Lewis and the latter into the inconsistent world of "whistleblower" Kathy Jackson; both areas the mainstream media refused to touch for a long time because the uncovered facts went against the prevailing narrative of Labor bad, Julia bad.

        Yes these niche sites don't have the resources of large organisations but when those same organisations such as News Ltd start trying to be political players they've lost the confidence of aware readers.

        Commenter
        Think Big
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        June 27, 2012, 8:59AM
        • Sorry, no matter how good Vexnews and Independent Australia claims to be, the majority of people want to get their news from one place. Niche websites like Crikey and The Drum which mainly cover politics will never have the broad readership of a mainstream newspaper. It's no use having a good website if there isn't the (sometimes influential) audience to read your views.

          It is still The Age, Fin Review, SMH and The Australian which appears in most government and corporate offices.

          Commenter
          Tristan
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          June 27, 2012, 12:55PM
      • 'High-quality news content', huh?

        The featured stories on the frot page of SMH.com.au as I write this are:

        * A sportsman who died in a car crash
        * A sportsman talking about his lack of sporting performance
        * A public police re-enactment of a crime we already knew about from previous stories
        * A story about the upset crowd at the above re-enactment
        * A navel-gazing story about newspaper's own responsibilities online when it comes to reporting
        * A story on remote drone killings which is basically an aggregation and summary of links from other news stories already published about the same issue. - A good summary article, actually. Pity it's about a year too late.

        Oh, and a massive banner ad at the top of the page for Western Australia Tourism.

        Yep, there's no way professional bloggers could possibly replace such staggering investigative ability and quality journalism.

        Commenter
        DM
        Date and time
        June 27, 2012, 9:04AM
        • Are random bloggers frequenting the police stations, law courts and Parliament House regularly? Are they fielding reports from war torn countries?

          Was the Captain Emad people smuggling story and animal cruelty in overseas abattoirs stories filed by independent bloggers? No, it was the ABC.

          Have independent bloggers produced an 8 article special investigation into Job Services Australia rorts? No, that was Fairfax.

          And do independent bloggers win swags of Walkley & Golden Quill awards for excellence in journalism? Only once, if you count the Walkley awarded to Julian Assange last year.

          Commenter
          Tristan
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          June 27, 2012, 1:02PM

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