Thursday, August 6, 2009

The inequality of information

Among the news in journalism circles last week was that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation will begin charging a fee for access to all its web sites in 2010.

Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal has been charging for access for as long as the Post Register has – about 10 years. Nearly all of its other sites – from Fox News to News of the World – have been free.

Murdoch makes a number of accurate and important observations about the reason for charging an online fee, albeit about 10 years late. Among other things, he said:
"Quality journalism is not cheap. The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels but it has not made content free.”
He said that there could be a need for furious litigation to prevent stories and photographs being copied elsewhere: "We'll be asserting our copyright at every point."
"We're certainly satisfied that we can produce significant revenues from the sale of digital delivery of newspaper content."

The issue for Murdoch and anyone else aspiring to charge for online content is to create something of value. In the news business, that means producing journalism of credibility and substance.

Good journalism has value. That value can be converted into revenue, because people will pay a reasonable fee for a service or product they value. If people won’t pay for good journalism, it’s either because they’ve been led to believe that a quality product can be free forever (the falsity of which is becoming increasingly clear), or they believe that enough revenue can be generated indirectly through advertising to support high-quality online journalism (it can’t, at least so far).

If you want a pizza, you’ll happily drop $15 or so to buy it. If you need gas, you’ll pay the $3 a gallon to get it (though perhaps not happily). Information works the same way. It takes a well-trained, well-managed and well-focused group of journalists to produce a quality news product. If the product is any good, it’s worth a fair price. If it’s lousy, it should be free. Quality news for free is a myth, and after a long run that fairy tale is starting to be put to rest.

So, congratulations to Rupert Murdoch for seeing the light. He’s just the latest of many in the news business to recognize that there is no free lunch, that good journalism must – and, I’m confident, will – be supported by people who can differentiate between just another blog and information that has been vetted through sound journalistic principles.

Some will scoff at the notion that journalism still matters, if it ever did. But most of us still understand that not all information is created equal.

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