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Mediacafé # 4: Free news, bad news?

Must online news be free?

If we want to enjoy a good meal, we go to an expensive restaurant. If we want convenience, we opt for an A-brand. If we want to dress fancy, we choose a label. If we want quality reporting,… we don’t pay for it.

The American study State of the News Media 2010 states that only 19 percent of the respondents is willing to open his wallet for articles on a website. Only 7 percent  has a favourite news site for which they are willing to pay. On top of that, the revenue of newspapers dropped  22 percent in the United States. Can we transfer the old business models, in which we pay for newspapers, directly to online media? Quality costs money, so we should pay for it, also online, but shouldn’t quality be a basic principle in our media? Shouldn’t that be evident? And what are the consequences for a journalist when his content disappears behind a paywall? Can he or she still distinguish him/herself in an online environment?  

Media companies all over the world are looking for new business models. Nobody seems to have an answer to the question of how to pay for sustainable journalism in the future. Only large companies dare  to take the risk, because it is difficult to predict the feasibility of each new experiment. Others wait to see which way the cat jumps, or cluster themselves around new (smaller) online initiatives that  rely on citizen journalists or freelancers for content, and on small ads and their readers’ goodwill for revenue.

Is the internet the solution for newspapers in distress? Visitor numbers of newspaper websites increase, and most of these websites are also the most popular news sites. Plenty of potential, you would think, but unfortunately it doesn’t lead to more revenue. Advertising revenue is declining and only a few people click on an online ad (Source: Project for Excellence in Journalism, State of the News Media 2010).

The answer of Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation, is the ‘paywall’. A while ago, the British online version of The Times (with new name Times+) went behind such a paywall. You cannot get access to the news unless you pay for it. There is much scepticism about the system and by implementing it, Murdoch seems to admit that he has no new ideas when it comes to selling newspaper ads. It is currently unclear what the next step of the media tycoon will be. Is he going to invest the new revenue in the editorial staff, or will it disappear in the pockets of shareholders?

Professor George Brock (United Kingdom) is the head of the Journalism department at the City University in London since September 2009. During his 28-year career The Times went through a huge evolution. Brock played an important role in the creation of TimesOnline and now sees the website disappear behind Rupert Murdoch's paywall. Paul Lewis (UK) is Special Projects Editor for The Guardian, another important quality newspaper in the UK. The Guardian (Guardian Media Group) is not part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, unlike The Times. Lewis was named Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards 2010 and won the 2009 Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism. He previously worked at The Washington Post. Dieter Haerens is COO of Mediafin, a joint-venture of De Persgroep and Rossel. Since June 2010, the online editions of De Tijd and L’Echo are no longer for free. Having more than 3000 subscribers just after the first month exceeded the expectations.

These gentlemen will debate sharply and the discussion will be moderated by Piet Depuydt. Depuydt studied Political Science at the University of Ghent and Business and Economics at the Catholic University of Leuven. He worked as editor-in-chief and senior writer at the business weekly Trends. Since May 2008 he is financial editor at the NRC Handelsblad.


Mediacafé is an initiative of deBuren, VVOJ, Fonds Pascal Decroos and and accessible to everyone. 


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