You guys, I've mentioned in an earlier post that I got picked up by the Guardian, a UK newspaper, to write for their internet division. I feel like a young Della Frye, except for the part where she's stuck in the middle of a ridiculous movie and my life is really happening. I'm also shorter than she is.
The following post went live at the Guardian's Comment is Free section today! You can view it here. A lively debate has picked up quickly; it turns out those Brits get all up in arms when it comes to Rupert Murdoch. Who knew?
Here's the post. They edited the American English out of it and made some other tweaks; this is it in its original form.
In further proof of why old people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates, media magnate Rupert Murdoch recently announced that News Corporation's newspaper websites will begin charging for access within a year.
The move to charge for accessing online content is an effort to keep newspapers profitable amid declining subscriptions and ad revenues. Murdoch called the current model, in which newspaper websites offer their content for free, a "malfunctioning" model, and one that's unsustainable.
Murdoch also opposed the recent decision by the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post to work with Amazon to develop a version of the e-reader the Kindle tailored for reading newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals.
The issue here is not whether the current model of offering free content to all is financially viable--clearly, it's not. The issue is the odious assumption implicit in Murdoch's stance: that centralized control of information flow is somehow better than the decentralized model embraced by the public.
Murdoch and others subscribe to the notion that leveling the playing field by offering free access to content was a regrettable mistake. Here's how the New York Times put it in a recent piece about the Kindle:
Perhaps most appealing about this new class of reading gadgets is the opportunity they offer publishers to rethink their strategy in a rapidly evolving digital world. The move by newspapers and magazines to make their material freely available on the Web is now viewed by many as a critical blunder that encouraged readers to stop paying for the print versions.
You know how the movement toward mass literacy was spearheaded by the church, in an effort to get the word of God into the hands, mouths, and minds of every citizen? I wonder if church officials called it a "critical blunder" when they figured out that learning how to read meant being able to make decisions about what to read, and when, and how. While it may not necessarily be true that mass literacy leads to a better society, it's certainly the case that if your power rests on the ability to tell people what to think, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And a lot of knowledge is explosive.
We're in the middle of a revolution made possible through the rapid spread of and relatively easy access to a vast store of human knowledge. Newspapers' decision to make their material available online for free--what print media types are now calling a "critical blunder"--was a crucial factor in making the revolution possible. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time: For journalists, after all, news is important, and more access by more people to more news could only be better for everyone, right?
Clay Shirky writes that "it's not a revolution if nobody loses," and the first losers in this particular revolution were broadcast media outlets (TV, newspapers, magazines) and cultural elites whose social status relied on the ability to control who had access to the news, what stories they had access to, and what they did with that information.
Murdoch asserted that "[t]he current days of the internet will soon be over." If he's right, it will only be because a small handful of corporations own the vast majority of media outlets. My sense, though, is that he's wrong: That even if newspapers return to a pay-for-view model, the people will rise up against and then roll right over it by making the same content available for free elsewhere online and developing new uses for social media that subvert the efforts of Murdoch and others.
If print media executives want to keep pace with the social revolution, they need to begin by letting go of the outdated assumption that their job is to first filter and then broadcast information for the public good. From now on, we'll decide what matters, thank you very much, and if newspapers know what's good for them, they'll do what they can to not get in the way.