Sunday, 4 October 2009

A Guardian for Gratis is a Guardian taken for Granted

As a nation, we've become completely used to the idea of getting our news for free. As a joudent (Journalism student - isn't it funny what getting up too early can do to you?) I admit that if it wasn't for the constant free provision of decent news in the form of national and local newspaper websites, I'd be consuming much less news and learning far below what I was meant to be about the world around me. Now, I have heard people scoff at the idea of paying for news. “I just get the Metro, me” they say, as though people who are stupid enough to buy the Times in the morning are the type of people that shell out £40 for perfume in Harvey Nicks when you could buy it for £20 online. I can sort-of see their point, the misguided little tykes, I mean, why buy clothes when you can find all sorts of discarded socks and jackets strewn across town on a Sunday morning? Why buy food when you could have a good old rummage through the bins down the back of Greggs?

I do take advantage of the reams of free news reporting at my disposal – that’s what it’s there for – and when Murdoch (which always has to be said as though you’re cursing God himself, shaking a fist to the sky) spoke earlier in the Summer about making his news websites a paid-for provision I got all up in arms about it, claiming the public had the right to free news. If I remember correctly, a lot of people got suitably uppity about the idea of paying for news. Some even went as far as to claim news as a right that all people should have. Wrong. That is a wrong statement. News was created to inform and educate, and to act as a watchdog against those with power on behalf of We the People and so on, but this does not make it a right. News needs money in order to fund investigations and provide insightful stories. If all news was free, given to us as a human right, what type of subjects would you expect to see in the pages of your local tabloid? You certainly wouldn’t get any investigatory stories under a revenue situation that solely consists of advertising and classified ads. There’s an obvious link between good news and a decent amount of income – how many people do you know would happily go out every day covering important breaking stories for free? If you were being paid the bare minimum, and most of your team had recently been laid off because of serious budget cuts, would you go out into the field to uncover real truths? Or would you sit dissolutioned in your office, re-writing press releases as copy to fill the pages in order to get more advertisers interested?



[Picture courtesy of the Guardian]

The idea of paying for online news came as a shock to most, but now that several months have passed since the initial idea was thrown into the front of people’s minds, the ripples have gradually made more and more sense. Why do we feel that paying for news is so abhorrent? We could blame free newspapers such as the Metro, and soon the London Evening Standard, for making us believe that news can be a free commodity, but there are other reasons to consider too. We’ve had online news for over ten years now. We can access it from anywhere at any time. We’ve simply become used to the idea that news is something we all deserve, that it’s ours, and that we should be allowed to have it. This is a selfish and destructive way to view such an important resource. Do we expect journalists to write for free? Are we happy to read regurgitated Press Association copy on the bus on the way to work? My answer to this on behalf of everybody is no – every day I hear a person complain that the news they read was biased or vague or simply irrelevant. Soft news has become the norm, and I genuinely feel that this is a tragedy. The public are dumbing themselves down, are reading celebrity news rather than being interested in current affairs, because it is available, because it is cheap, and because it’s marketed as being more fun. If you look at the Bizarre pages in the Sun, you can see how the celebrity news looks more interesting. To explain it crudely; look at the colours, the pictures, the shocking information – even the way it’s written. Now look at the way real news is portrayed in the same paper. It’s either been made exiting by the use of opinion or slant, or it has been squashed into a 300 word box, as if to say “This is the news, we know you’re not to bothered about that so we made it shorter for you. Go and read about the football.” Most people like the way this is presented, and who am I to judge? I just feel that as a person who cares about the news that reaches the public that this is wholly wrong. More and more people are simply not interested in current affairs. Ask any person on the street about any aspect of politics, and nine times out of ten they will tell you that politics doesn’t interest them, that it doesn’t involve them, that politicians don’t speak for them. Don’t they know that they can do something about this? The short answer, sadly, is no. They don’t know that they can affect things, because the news they read talks to them as an unempowered person, gazing in on a world they can barely imagine. Politics is a far away land of laws and complicated terminology. It doesn’t have to be like this. Unfortunately, if we continue to demand news cheaper, faster and easier to read, it will get further and further away.

5 comments:

breadelectro said...

I know plenty of people who subscribe to the ideas that you mentioned at the end of your first paragraph, and they seem to know a lot more about current affairs than the average pleb. The real problem here is our own hypocrisy with regards to greed and money. The people who don't want to pay for their news, do want to get paid for their job, and the journalists and news companies feel like they are not getting their dues for doing their jobs. If you did have to pay for information in this way I'm pretty sure that the revenue wouldn't all go on a bigger budget for investagatoritive journalism, I don't fully trust big news companies to use that money fairly. It is a real shame that The Sun exists purely because there is a market for it, and the fact that it exists perpetuates that market, but you can't force people to be interested in world events. No one would pay to read The Sun online, and I fear that only people who could afford it would read The Guardian, or The Independent, or The Times online, and that just isn't fair. You would end up with a class division, where you would only be in the know about world events if you could afford to know. Knowledge shouldn't be a commodity. I agree that the people finding out and telling us about said knowledge need to be rewarded for their efforts, and need the resources to continue, but their needs to be a different way to get the wonga. It's the fact that we need wonga at all that gets to me the most. There must be some reporters out there who do their job for love, not money. I'm gonna stop now because I'm getting all angry, and you won't like me when I'm angry :p

Karl Steel said...

The truth is that 90 per cent of news (except natural disasters and car crashes etc.) comes from said press releases and has an agenda behind it - be it politicians/councillors canvassing or attempting to put a positive spin on a little 'misdemeanour', or a story about a big baby - somebody has sent that to the paper because they want everyone to know about it. The amount of 'real' news is so minimal it's unbelievable.

I'm working at the Yorkshire Post and Evening Post for the next fortnight, and I know now that not one story I write will come from my own initiative - every story they write comes from a press release, council meeting or the police phone line.

But yeah, news can easily be a free comodity, providing it is good enough. I think people prefer a variety - a little bit of hard news and then a story about a Turkish shepherd who ate his own testicles (Peep Show reference...) - something to make you think, and also something you can tell your mates.

I had a good idea that I think will be used (if not already) sooner rather than later: product placement in news. "The thief escaped on foot, wearing some suave Nike Air Zoom II trainers (rrp £49.99) that definitely helped him run faster" or "Witnesses described hearing a lot of shouting and arguing, before the couple put on the new Coldplay album Viva La Vida (5/5) to drown out the noise."

Just a thought.

atomredthread said...

Like every argument I ever try and understand it always seems to come down to simple words. What is news? I like Karl Steel's point about how the vast majority of what we read in papers has been put there for a purpose, to advertise, to side with one or another, to put across a biased view. But that's what news is to me.

Anyone who writes, writes with a view point. Even those on the fence have the view point of being on the fence, so paid or not, anything they say comes from an angle. Even if we had hardcore factualists (don't care if that isn't a word) I'm sure that they too would end up missing out certain bits. There's more to life than cold hard facts. There's how people react to facts.

I don't have a problem with dumbed-down news either. If there's an article in a magazine that might get read alongside some shock-horror real life story, or fashion special, well at least it's being read.

Different formats appeal to different people and different classes. And there's always TV. Sure a lot of people turn over, but we know a lot of people tune in - otherwise it wouldn't keep being shown.

I guess the main thing is that it's business. Like everything in this country, it all comes down to money, and news needs to be profitable.

Katie said...

I understand what people mean when they say that news shouldn't be a commodity, it should be free, but I disagree. I feel that information should be free - and to all intents and purposes it is, in most cases, especially since the freedom of information act came into play. You can go to the town hall and find out info for yourself for free, you can look anything up on the internet and if you're willing to put enough time into it, you could probably find out more than the papers ever would. What I'm saying is that people don't have the time to do this, and so for jurnalists to find information that's relevant, interesting and sometimes law-changing, they should be paid a fair wage, and the resulting news should be paid for. It is something that has been worked for, and I think it's only fair that it should have a price.

breadelectro - I know that there are many people who subscribe to freegan ideals of gaining free food from behind greggs while still having strong political beliefs and caring about the world around them - this wasn't my point. My point was that you can find anything anywhere if you have the time and patience and even the fortitude to look for it - some people would rather pay to have a decent meal however, and that's the idea I was going for. Sorry if my views didn't come across too well :)

ahsmokespot said...

I sincerely hope that charging for online news kills murdoch.

Pay the liscence fee, go to bbc.co.uk and shut your pus.

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