Modern Journalism and The Pay Wall Conundrum

This month we’re publishing the 20th anniversary edition of the classic Universal Journalist by David Randall. Now in its fifth iteration, it’s been updated to reflect the changes, both positive and negative, to the journalistic climate. For this post, the author discusses what he considers to be the main issue destroying international journalism today – free content and the ‘dreaded’ pay wall…

‘It’s April, and so time for one of my twice a year visits to a training centre in the north of EnglandThe Universal Journalist
to speak to the young journalists on its course. I’ve been going there for  seventeen  years and it’s always rewarding, not least because, unlike most lectures I do, there’s time to sit down and chat afterwards and hear what young journalists think about news, newspapers, and the state of UK media. I’m used to being mildly surprised by some of what they have to say, but this time I got a real jolt.

Most of the sessions required me to pass on the best tips about journalism I’ve received or stumbled upon in my forty years as an editor and reporter. This trot through my personal history wound up with me telling the trainees about the gathering I went to in March to mark the final press night of my old paper, the Independent on Sunday. It has now died and gone to join other defunct publications on the great landfill site in the sky.

A sadder event in a London pub I have yet to attend. It was not so much young reporters asking me if I knew of any jobs going, or talking to senior staff who have no idea if they will ever work in newspapers again. Nor was it even the death of my paper (its daily counterpart, the Independent, continues only online). It was the thought that the forces which are helping to see off such newspapers (and smothering many jobs on those that remain) are now everywhere weakening journalism and its scrutiny of the powerful by professional reporters – essential to any democracy. At the risk of sounding like a nostalgic old guy ruing modern circumstance, I told the trainees of these forces.

A lesser one first: the transfer of spending from commercial media to the public sector which has led to the relentless trend for newspapers to shed staff at the same time as national and local governments and other public services employ ever more public relations people to spin, dissemble, and, if necessary, cover up negligence and failings. When I edited a British provincial paper more than thirty years ago, I had twenty-one reporters and there were almost no PR staff at any public body. We spoke directly to the senior officials and politicians running things. Today, that same paper has just five reporters, who must deal in the main, not with top officials, but press offices. In Britain, there are now 37,000 PR staff, and 37,000 full-time employed journalists, most of whom are not reporters. So for every news reporter trying to find out what’s happening there are at least a couple of media relations people whose job, in part, is to stop them. Less information, less reason to buy a paper, less scrutiny, less real democracy.

And then I came to the impact of the internet, and newspapers’ response to it, a point where I normally expect my views to be greeted by trainees with something less than whoops of agreement and whole-hearted hoorahs.

The net has changed everything for newspapers, especially advertising. Before the web, you needed an investment of millions to be a daily or weekly publisher. The net lowered this barrier to very little, and there are now vastly more outlets for advertising. Newspapers are no longer the main carriers of ads, especially for cars, homes and jobs. In Britain – and this is true of every advanced economy – national and local paper advertising is now a fraction of what it once was. In 2008, newspapers had 27.3 per cent of the UK ad market. Now, including their online operations, they have just 11.4 per cent, a fall of more than 50 per cent in seven years. The real media beneficiaries are the Googles and Facebooks, which don’t employ a single news reporter. Last year, Google’s ad revenues were £35 billion.

Newspapers almost everywhere decided that the right response to the net was to take the work produced by journalists and give it away for free online. Never mind that many readers (and all the libraries, staff rooms and colleges  who use to take most papers every day would stop their orders – institutional sales worth tens of thousands of copies a day), the idea was that online advertising revenues would cover the cost. Some hope. National newspaper journalists are not cheap to employ. But online advertising is cheap. If you want to buy a double-page Saturday colour ad in Britain’s most successful paper, the Daily Mail, the book price is £82,656. A banner ad on its website, Mail Online, will cost you just £22 per thousand page views. It is the world’s most visited newspaper website, yet has ad revenues barely a seventh of those of its papers.

There is a further problem: adblocker software which stops online advertising loading onto your device. Last year, their use in Britain increased 82 per cent. In France a third of all internet users have adblockers, and smartphone makers like Samsung, and service providers, are fitting the anti-ad software as standard. PageFair, a leading US company in this field, estimates adblockers cost publishers almost $22 billion in 2015. Publishers are now beginning to install software which detects adblockers and denies their users access. And so, in response, we now have adblocker-blocker-blockers, which fool sites with anti-adblocker technology into thinking you are not using an adblocker.

The only solution, I’ve always believed, is for publishers to charge for the reporting that costs so much to produce; paywalls, or micro-payments. The contrasting performances in recent years of The Times and the Guardian is, as Stephen Glover has pointed out in April’s Prospect, telling. In the last ten years, sales of The Times have fallen 100,000 copies, but the paper, which has a paywall, now breaks even financially. The Guardian, meanwhile – which has a free-to-use and very good website – has seen sales fall from 400,000 to 165,000, and last year it and its Sunday paper lost £56.8 million. That is £155,616 down the toilet every day. Now charging for content may well come as a shock to the generations who have grown up regarding access to free quality news as some sort of basic human right, but it has to be done. Otherwise, the prospects for journalism, and the investigation and questioning of officialdom upon which democracy depends (and at which the Guardian, at the moment, excels), are very poor indeed.

That, in essence, was what I said to the trainees. Two or three years ago, I would have been told (and invariably was) that I didn’t ‘get’ the internet and therefore failed to understand the joys of reading quality news for free, and sharing information via the likes of Facebook. To which I would respond that I did get it, but failed to see how any of this provided the hefty revenue streams necessary to support and pay for professional reporting. A sort of moody impasse would prevail, like two protagonists who, not sharing a common language, stood little chance of adequately explaining themselves.

This time it was very different. Almost to a man and a woman, these trainees shared my concern about the wonky business model of many modern newspapers, and were frustrated (positively despairing, in some cases) by some regional paper groups increasingly regarding print editions as tiresome distractions from the main task of pouring into the ether for free consumption local news that has been expensively produced and whose exclusivity is actually their only USP. Several of the trainees even wondered if it was possible for national newspapers to get together and agree to simultaneously institute a charge for accessing their content. If only, I pointed out, it were not for the BBC’s news website, a state-subsidised free online national newspaper, vastly staffed, which also covers every region in the country and relies, for gathering this news, on the pages of provincial papers more than it would ever admit. Several trainees had worked this out for themselves, many were appalled at the widespread production of click-bait (after all, as one said, if they’re all doing it, where’s the revenue benefit?), and all had absorbed that the health of quality journalism depended on people paying to read it.

Could it be that this generation – ‘digital natives’, the demographic so beloved of media managements – are evolving a more sceptical attitude to the web? That they, who have never known anything but the internet, are less beguiled by its novelty, and more realistic about its impact on the economics of journalism, than corporate suits in the regional press and their obsession with reducing news reporting to so many gigabytes of ‘content’? That they understand it better? That people like these trainees will, as they progress in the industry, be able to better protect what pays for and sustains the quality, professional reporting upon which any democracy depends? And are we seeing the beginnings of a media version of the phenomenon physicist Max Planck observed: ‘A new [scientific] truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’’


David Randall is a British journalist and newspaper consultant. Formerly assistant editor of the Observer, where his news pages won awards, he has written, edited and lectured on newspapers in Britain, Africa and Eastern Europe. He has been the Home Editor of the Independent and News Executive at the Independent on Sunday, amongst many other papers.


The Universal Journalist – Fifth Edition is available to buy from Pluto Press here.



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