Mr. Murdoch, tear down this wall! (or how paywalls are like nightclub ropelines)

Posted on June 19, 2010

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The discussions over The Times and The Sunday Times going behind a paywall have been going on across the internet for months now. The cud was chewed over far too carefully when it was first rumoured; it went into overkill when it was first announced; but now that it’s actually beginning to happen, opinions have become slightly less strident and the arguments have died down.

You’ll all thank me for digging it up again, then, and adding my own poorly-written opinion to the numerous others – both expert and non-expert, representatives of new media and old, inside and outside the industry – that got their views in a few months ago. I’m late to the party, but there’s an argument to be made that I’m being more timely in that I’m looking at what’s happened as the change is happening.

It’s worth noting now that I have a semi-vested interest in the fact that The Times content is going behind a paywall. I buy (but don’t subscribe to) The Sunday Times every weekend and for the past eight years, TimesOnline has been my homepage. It’s the website that’s told me everything I’ve needed to know. I’ve learnt about the invasion of Iraq, the 7/7 bombings, Gillian Duffy, the 2010 election and a whole lot inbetween.

The Times (and Sunday Times) are currently undergoing the shift in their online presence from free and open content to going behind the paywall. Currently you’re still able to look at all the content, but need to sign up for an ‘Exclusive Preview’ which at some undetermined time will be taken away and replaced by News Corp (parent company of The Times and Sunday Times) asking for your money to see their crop of excellent writers.

I asked three of The Times and Sunday Times’ columnists (India Knight, Matt Rudd and Caitlin Moran) on Twitter for their opinions on their work going behind the paywall. Matt Rudd replied that he was happy to go behind the paywall; “it might mean a smaller audience for my witterings but why should a newspaper put all its content online for nothing?” Ironically, Knight directed me to an opinion piece Moran wrote today (which Knight herself agrees wholeheartedly with) about the subject that was on the website. I hadn’t seen it – when a month ago I would’ve – because of the fact that you can’t click beyond the front page of the new Times website without signing up for their trial.

Obviously I’ve caved now, and have become an ‘Exclusive Previewer’ (if you can be exclusive when anyone and everyone can sign up as long as they have an email address and are able to make up an address and postcode) to read it.

Moran’s article (‘A big paywall, all over the dream of free global communication? I like it’ – you should definitely sign up for the preview and read it by the way, even if I had said that I don’t like having to sign up for things) has a very simple claim in it, which is capitalised because frankly this is going to be on the internet and is going to be read by people who are messianically opposed to paywalls and will probably overlook anything that isn’t pointed out directly to them. “I THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE TO PAY FOR CONTENT ON THE INTERNET.”

It’s quite a brave move given the fact that the internet is made up of about 99% trolls and Scandanavians who believe it’s their right to get anything they want for free via their T3 connections – and I don’t necessarily agree with her, but I do see her point.

“I don’t think journalism should be free, because, tbh, bitch got to make rent”, she writes in the pithy style which has rightly made her Columnist of the Year. It’s a logical argument: journalism is a dying business (I should know, I’m one of the thousands of klutzes trying to get into it). And journalists don’t get paid a lot, despite what the romanticised black-and-white movies where fedora’d men in flasher macs chain smoke while getting RSI slamming away at an old-school typewriter try and tell you. I’ve looked at the handy ‘So you want to be a journalist?’ pamphlets that careers departments fling at you. It’s a pittance, and it’s especially a pittance when you consider that you have to live in London and pay London prices and avoid London stabbings.

The problem comes in thinking that 100% of the old TimesOnline readership would buy a daily paper. I don’t. I buy a weekly paper, because in a weekly paper you get supplements and funny people writing funny things and it’s more of a roundup of the week in news rather than an attempt to report it as it happens. I rely on TV news for telling me things as they happen, because they don’t shut up shop at midnight or 1am the day before and wait until the next day to tell me about the things that happened in the 5 hours of no man’s land between it being paged up and it being read by morning commuters. I rely on bloggers, because if you’re aware that probably every fifth thing you hear is a lie then you get near to the truth and besides, in five minutes time you’ll hear about it properly on the TV. It takes hours to get that on a newspaper.

I read TimesOnline when it existed for the features, for the in-depth reporting – the stuff that doesn’t rely on being up-to-date – but I can’t afford to shell out many many pounds a week for that sort of stuff. Journalists are poor? I’m unemployed. And a student. And northern. That’s poor. I’m also aware that I’m one of those people who are killing journalism by providing content (albeit shoddy, poorly researched, badly written content) for free. I’m killing journalism because in order to get a job in journalism I’m going to have to offer to write stuff for free and make tea in a local newspaper’s office – and local newspapers are feeling the pinch even more than The Times and are realising that they can work the treadmill of work experience kids to produce copy for nothing. But I wouldn’t buy The Times every day. I’ll buy it on Sundays, but paying for outdated news isn’t what I want (nor is paying more than the cover price of the print edition for constantly updated news).

I’m one of the 76% who won’t pay to read news on the internet. Not, at least, while The Guardian is right there. Now that I’m an exclusive previewer, I’ll keep the new Times website as my homepage. But when they pull the velvet rope across because I don’t have £50 to spend on a bottle of champagne for my table in the VIP section, I’ll be running into The Guardian’s open arms.

Will you be switching allegiances to another newspaper? How much is too much for e-news? Let me know in the comments below.

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