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Guardian says no to paywalls

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 26th January 2010

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger is always good for a quote or two. He also, in my humble opinion, speaks a lot of sense about journalism, digital and technology; how the three are coming together and what they each mean for those in the media industry.

So his Hugh Cudlipp Lecture looking at the future of journalism was obviously going to be an interesting read, and it is. You can read the full text here, but I thought I’d highlight the most interesting bits:


The paywall debate just won’t go away and was fueled yesterday by rumours that Murdoch is to sell The Times because he knows that paywalls just won’t work. Rusbridger himself has some very interesting things to say on the issue:

“If you erect a universal pay wall around your content then it follows you are turning away from a world of openly shared content. Again, there may be sound business reasons for doing this, but editorially it is about the most fundamental statement anyone could make about how newspapers see themselves in relation to the newly-shaped world.”

“The second issue it [paywalls] raises is the one of ‘authority’ versus ‘involvement’. Or, more crudely, ‘Us versus Them’… Here the tension is between a world in which journalists considered themselves – and were perhaps considered by others – special figures of authority. We had the information and the access; you didn’t. You trusted us filter news and information and to prioritise it – and to pass it on accurately, fairly, readably and quickly. That state of affairs is now in tension with a world in which many (but not all) readers want to have the ability to make their own judgments; express their own priorities; create their own content; articulate their own views; learn from peers as much as from traditional sources of authority. Journalists may remain one source of authority, but people may also be less interested to receive journalism in an inert context – ie which can’t be responded to, challenged, or knitted in with other sources.”

Rusbridger goes on to give an example of how a paywall would have presented a challenge for the Guardian in its breaking of the Google China story recently. It’s an example that is worth noting from a PR viewpoint as well:

“Had there been a universal pay wall around the Guardian that would have been a difficult story to handle.- Wait and publish in print? But we knew that Google was about to post the story on its own blog at 6pm Eastern.- Publish digitally and hope that people would buy a day pass to read it? But in the time it took to key in your credit card the essence of the story would have been Twittered into global ubiquity. It is one of the clichés of the new world that most scoops have a life expectancy of about three minutes. A valuable three minutes for the FT or the Wall Street Journal if it’s market sensitive information. Most people, with most information, and without subscriptions paid for by their companies, are happy to wait.”

Journalists v bloggers v readers

One of the themes he keeps coming back to is whether journalists can now expect to be seen as the gatekeepers or the voice of authority. In a social media world, this is surely impossible and futile.

“Many of the Guardian’s most interesting experiments at the moment lie in this area of combining what we know, or believe, or think, or have found out, with the experience, range, opinions, expertise and passions of the people who read us, or visit us or want to participate rather than passively receive.”

He mentions liveblogs, crowd-sourcing, Comment is Free etc. as ways in which the Guardian is innovating and changing the way it delivers content.

As for me, this is the key for journalism. Yes print will die and yes, the digital age is a real challenge for publishers. But, it is also an opportunity. Publishers like the Guardian that don’t just go for the quick financial win (think paywalls) and try to provide value not found elsewhere are surely the ones that will end up thriving.

Danny Whatmough