Recently published on Open Democracy has been an influential paper by Angela Phillips on “The Future of Journalism“. The paper was presented at the Media, Power and Revolution: Making the 21st Century, held in London and hosted by the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Trust.
There are certainly valid points that Phillips makes. The point that the much talked about “crisis of journalism” is actually a crisis of traditional news business models, at a time which in other respects is an exciting one for journalism, is well made. Similarly, the limits to the Huffington Post-type business model, where more and more content is aggregated, and drawn from as many non-paid sources as possible, are timely and important.
The question remains of, as Phillips puts it:
Journalism, done well, is an expensive business and it has to be paid for. The question is not whether it should be paid for but how.
The problem is that Phillips’ answer enters into the realms of conspiracy theory. Phillips again notes that the question “lies in finding a way to get citizens not only to participate but also to pay for the journalism we all need”. Indeed it does.
But in wondering why we cannot simply make micropayments that do not “require anything more than clicking yes to a button that asks us to pay a few pence to view an article?”, Phillips proposes that:
Maybe the real reason why we cannot have a simple payments system, that doesn’t require complex and off-putting log-ins, is because that would prevent the big players from getting their hands on all that private data. It is in the interests of big players to keep small players out of the game and they are doing it by telling us that information wants to be free.
The problem is not the inability to make micropayments. The online porn industry is based around micropayments, and is estimated by some to account for up to 30% of online data being transmitted. Rather, the problem is getting some of that spare cash directed towards payments for news.
Historically, news has been a bundled product. In its print form, news items were bundled with other forms of content (TV guides, racing forms, classifieds, sports results, share prices, crosswords etc.), wrapped up with advertising, and sold to us for a fairly nominal price.
In the online space, the advertising rates are far lower, as Phillips correctly observes, the classifieds have essentially gone elsewhere on the Web – although several news sites run a nice side line in dating services – and getting the public to pay anything remains the challenge. One reason is that – and Phillips may not like this point being made – is that any commercial media product based on a payment system competes with content made freely available by the BBC and other public service media.
But whatever the reasons, and whatever the challenges, the problem is not that people cannot make micropayments. Everyone in the news business would like a micropayments system that worked: there is no “big media” interest in stopping it. The challenge remains that of producing the journalism that people will pay for, and turning the vicious cycle that Phillips describes into a more virtuous one.