What if being free was an ambition, not a problem?

For as long I can remember, there has been a very simple debate about whether local news should be paid for online. One based on practicalities.

On one hand, those who felt that yes, we could ask people to pay for it. The logic is simple: People paid for their news in print, why couldn’t they do the same online?

Then there were people who felt that no, we couldn’t ask people to pay for it. Various reasons were given, including lack of evidence people will pay for news, people will just swap news on Facebook instead, the BBC makes it impossible to charge for news and, of course, that when people paid for newspapers, they weren’t just paying for news.

In essence, it’s been a practical debate: The coulds argue in favour because news needs to be paid for. The couldn’ts argue against because they don’t see that it would work.

I’ve never been opposed to people paying for new online, but I’ve never believed that people would pay for local news in the numbers needed to keep local journalism at the scale it is today. Many in our industry like to cluck in disgust when we talk about the number of people who read local news in the UK for free, making sniffy comments about the state of local news, but precious little evidence is offered up of a meaningful future for local journalism if we sacrifice scale for fewer people paying for it.

But maybe we need to change the question – from could, but to whether we should charge for news. Stop seeing in practical terms, but in philosophical, meaning-of-life terms.

Surely the last couple of weeks in America, where it’s much more commonplace to see local news from historic publishers of record locked behind a paywall, should give us pause for thought.

Like many people last week, I’ve was absorbed by the US Presidential election. Philadelphia has been a key battleground, and I’ve been reading the Inquirer a lot. It turned out, a little too much:

Maybe it’s fine for me, as someone not from Philadelphia, to get this message. But what if I’m someone living in Philly, in the eye of the political storm, wanting to know what’s going on? In a country when almost half of voters have endorsed the man who has built his political success on trying to diminish the media, is it smart for journalism to lock out people seeking for information?

Maybe philosophically it doesn’t matter in Philly – there are plenty of other places to get in-depth information, not least the plethora of local TV stations who have become like-for-like competitors for many traditional print publishers online. But where does that leave the Inquirer’s journalism, especially in an era of misinformation?

CNN’s Reliable Sources reported this week that Newsmax, a TV news station which sits to the right of Fox News, has seen a surge in viewers since Fox News called Arizona for President Elect Biden, which suggested the Democrat would win the Presidential race.

That takes the idea of people choosing news based on their broad world view to a new, frightening level: That’s people rejecting honest news based on their world view. Can society really afford for news to be put behind a paywall then?

Elsewhere in the USA, local news sites have made a point of dropping their paywalls for stories related to the Coronavirus pandemic. A laudable (and in my opinion, correct) thing to do. But what message does that send to readers? Hey, we don’t think you should pay for the really important stuff, but you’ll need to for the less important stuff?

Above all, as a trade which is relies on the public good we do for to justify the access and privileges we expect to take for granted – from reporting on court through to having access to political leaders – is it not a contradiction in terms for us to then say to the same public ‘ah, but you’ll have to pay to see it.’

The notion of getting readers to pay is very neat: It replicates where we’ve come from, and appeals to the natural desire of not wanting to be overly-reliant on a single revenue stream (Referencing back to our over-reliance on classifieds back in the day, which at the time, masked the gradual decline in interest in local news anyhow). But there are two outcomes if publishers put too many eggs in this basket.

News enriches, when you’re rich enough.

We would essentially become a service for those who can afford to pay for news. We live in a country with record usage of foodbanks at the moment. Do we really want to be saying to readers that our news can only enrich their lives if they’re rich enough to be able to pay for it? Or that the news which campaigns on their behalf isn’t available to them?

Recent research for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport suggested that voter turnout improves if there is a daily local newspaper operating in the area.

The data methodology is up for discussion, I think: For example, I’m more likely to get detailed information about my local elections from my local weekly newspaper than I am from my daily, and the data used in the research makes no reference to digital-only brands which can be every bit as dedicated to council accountability as a 150-year-old daily newspaper.

But I want to believe the conclusion: That journalism does a good which makes your local world a better place, and makes you want to have a say in it too. But what happens if the local journalism we’re doing is less available than, say, political propaganda, intentional misinformation or honestly-held, loudly-shared but fundamentally poorly-researched opinions?

On one hand, we pay for water, don’t we? We pay for our bins to be emptied every week (maybe)? But we don’t have a choice there – and would end up in court if we didn’t.

If we truly believe in the impact local journalism can have, we surely need to make sure it reaches as many people as possible. Charging for content prevents that from happening, and starts to make it exclusive to those who can afford to pay for it.

The second result is that we become diminished

What would happen when local news gets locked away from the wider public in 2020 Britain? Disinformation would thrive. Back in the USA again, and how wonderful that when Donald Trump starts talking about a fixed election, free-to-air media like CNN can forcibly explain to a global audience why that is nonsense. Indeed, how remarkable that Fox News even cuts away from his press conference on ‘election fraud’ to say it can’t be proved.

This plays out at a local level too, and on social media: Forget the ‘Facebook killed the ad model’ argument and think more about the Facebook group dilemma: The constant swapping of news and opinions is a real threat to the perceived value of local news, even when local news is freely available. Often, conjecture is instant, researched news is not. At 3am when I hear a helicopter above my house, someone in a Facebook group can tell me it’s a robber on the loose. Sounds plausible. It could be hours before local news reports the fact – that the helicopter was looking for a vulnerable person. We can never compete … but at least when free, people freely share what we’ve created. Put it behind paywall, and something else will fill the gap.

Unintentionally, but the focus to date on the practical debate about whether to charge for news online or not has helped us increase our relevancy. It turned the tide of our declining readerships and audiences (the collapse in classified revenue forced us to ask difficult questions about why readerships were declining).

For anyone with any sense in power, local journalism has become more powerful as a result. A council press officer who tells the council leader in 2020 they shouldn’t worry about their ‘local paper’ any more because no-one reads it shouldn’t expect to remain in work for much longer. Our news has impact, because it freely informs.

Advocates of charging for news talk of The Times as a success story. It is – but it also isn’t the primary source of reliable news for any one given location in the way local news brands are. Or the FT gets referenced. It is unique, and provides content which can’t be replicated easily. Or the New York Times. An amazing brand, but also not a local one. And, indeed, the outlier, rather than the norm in the States – and one many, many people consume for free still.

Quality Street? Quality cul-de-sac…

The idea the stories you pay for are somehow better than free ones is a nonsense. You don’t pay for Channel 4 News. You don’t pay (transactionally, at least) for Sky News, BBC News or even Times Radio. Free papers in 80s and 90s also proved this point. Indeed, arguably the most important newspaper investigation in recent years was the paedophile ring uncovered by the Yellow Advertiser.

Tindle closed it (it’s since returned online) due to it becoming unprofitable – but it’s an example of knocking for six the argument that you have to pay for quality. Equally, the Manchester Evening News slashed its price on Fridays to 10p in the 90s – but did the quality of the paper fall as a result? No … MEN journalism reached far more people as a result. It then went free in the city centre on certain days, again reaching far more people than would have thought to have bought the paper.

I began my career in free weekly newspapers – and we absolutely set out every week to give the local paid fors a run for their money (and maybe let readers keep their own coins in their pockets too).

But how to make it pay?

It does raise the question that if journalism is too important to be locked away from all who just want to and/or can pay for it, then how do we fund it? To go back to the tortured water metaphor, it’s highly unlikely the Government is going to order the public to pay for news. Nor is a form of long-term state subsidy particularly appealing.

Corinne Podger, below, argues the front 5 pages of the paper never paid the paper’s bills (no matter how much we want to think otherwise) … and cites Damian Radcliffe’s list of 231 ways to fund journalism:

None of this is to say that people shouldn’t pay for news services. Curating the news in 24/7 media world is a powerful proposition – indeed, the enduring sales of newspapers even during lockdown speaks to that. There will be areas and niches which you can charge for because interest is so deep.

Archives too, could be an area charged for. Or interactive experiences.

Paying for a better reading experience is another way. Or for membership. Or for services which trade on trust – reader holidays anyone?

In hindsight, I’m guessing there was a reason why the reader holidays desk was the first you encountered in the reception of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph in the early 2000s. Journalism has always been underwritten by the activities which go on around it.

Reliable sources still exist. The ones which have embraced being free, and challenged themselves to be part of people’s lives are the ones which help keep communities informed most effectively.

Do more people vote if they are local news consumers? I’ve no idea – but there’s no doubt they arrive at the polling station better informed if they do.

That feels like something we’re too ready to sacrifice in favour of demanding readers pay for news. Not because readers want to, but we because we want them to.

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