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How Much Does “Free” News Really Cost?

Will British Capitalism Bring Us Our Own Glenn Becks & Sarah Palins? 

I get more news and opinion via Twitter than any other single source. I like how it allows me to choose WHO gives me my news. This is important to me. And I like that it’s free. I don’t pay for any of it. Which means more money to spend on Guinness, music & films. This is also imprtant to me. I like Guinness.

An article recently caught my eye on Twitter. Entitled “Robot Cat Football Decapitation”. Who wouldn’t click on that! It was, as advertised, a robotic cat playing football so badly that it fell over and lost it’s head. It was a bit shit. But I watched it.

A few seconds later I saw “Angelina Jolie might return for Salt sequel“. I haven’t seen Salt, not really my cup of tea. But still I wondered why a politically driven publication such as The Guardian was posting this inane drivel in it’s news stream?

Intrigued, I clicked it. The story was also as advertised. A non-story about Mrs Pitt being undecided as to whether or not she’ll play the lead in a sequel to a film I hadn’t seen.

This annoyed me. I had selected the Guardian as one of my news providers as, politics aside, I felt I could trust them to provide me quality news items that would inform and educate me. And yet here they were thinking that I might give a shit about a pop actress possibly making a pop film.

The Robot Cat link had been posted by The Telegraph, another publication I held in high enough regard to trust to bring me intelligent news. Of course I replied to both posts with some witty “is this really news?” sentiment. I hoped they might register said annoyance, think about the nature of their posts in future and return to important and intelligent news. In short, I’d “had a word”.

But a force way more quantifiable and demanding than the annoyance of a random sweary bloke with a keyboard is controlling their online output. A force known as click throughs.

If I had been intrigued enough to absent mindedly click on the Robot Cat piece then I imagine I was not alone. I bet thousands of people, all just as bored as I was, clicked and chuckled as the shit cat fell over and his shit head rolled further than his shit shot did.

The Online Editor must have been rubbing his hands together at my boredom, before ordering staff to find another “Robot Cat” and informing the advertisers that the advert they’d placed on the page had been seen by XXX thousand idiots. “Same again tomorrow, sir?”

This annoyed me more than  Mrs Pitt’s non-film or the crap cat. The fact that money is already so directly influencing the respectable end of news publication is a frightening and brutally apparent fact.

Although these two cases are bland and innocent they raise questions. Like how long before a hypothetical mobile phone manufacturer spending hundreds of thousands in advertising threatens to withdraw said cash if a link to phone induced brain damage is reported? Or a German Beansprout outlet does likewise over health scares?

But something else dawned on me. Something bigger than even Salt II or the Robot Cat FA Cup Final….. I didn’t pay for ANY of this news. So what right did I have to get all sanctimonious about it when I was getting a 100% “free” service?

After all, someone somewhere along the line had to pay the journalist to write about the shit film and the shit cat. And if that wasn’t me then the paper needed to raise revenue somehow. This whole quandary felt very now. A most modern mess unfolding before my eyes.

However, it’s not. In 1928 a young man called Eric Blair had his very first article published. It was a letter called “A Farthing Newspaper” and GKs Weekly ran it. Mr Blair would of course, go on to have many articles published under the pseudonym George Orwell.

In this essay, Orwell discussed the multitude of genuinely free press operating in Paris at the time. From Communist Propaganda to Royalist papers, in every language imaginable.

His main concern was that a new paper had emerged and was selling very well at a mere fraction of the price of any other paper.

The Ami du Peuple is a Paris newspaper. It was established about six months ago, and it has achieved something really strange and remarkable in the world where everything is a “sensation,” by being sold at ten centimes, or rather less than a farthing the copy. It is a healthy, full-size sheet, with news, articles, and cartoons quite up to the usual standard, and with a turn for sport, murders, nationalist sentiment and anti-German propaganda. Nothing is abnormal about it except its price.

He went on to explain that despite it’s manifesto claiming to be of “pure public spirit, not for profit” The Ami du Peuple was in fact owned by a “great industrialist capitalist” and that it’s politics were “anti-radical and anti-socialist, of the goodwill-in-industry” and clearly covertly pomoting it’s owner’s propaganda while he hid in supposed anonymity.

But this disguised sentiment is not what troubled Orwell. Above all else it was the price that worried him most. He went on:

… all that is beside the point at this moment. The important questions, obviously, are these: Does the Ami du Peuple pay its way? And if so, how?

The second question is the one that really matters. Since the march of progress is going in the direction of always bigger and nastier trusts, any departure is worth noticing which brings us nearer to that day when the newspaper will be simply a sheet of advertisement and propaganda, with a little well-censored news to sugar the pill. 

Now Orwell may have been more concerned whether news and information was to become driven by political forces in order to mislead the masses than he was about the threat of Robot Cat Football inanity. Rightly so. And in that respect, at this point the UK online press offers varied and balanced opinions from all sides of most issues. From the Guardian to the Telegraph, the Daily Mail to The Mirror. Whatever your leaning the choices and voices are intact, for now.

But my fear is this, if we continue to demand news be given to us for free via onlne sources and buy less hard copy newspapers, then some publications will fall. It’s inevitable. We will be left with fewer, consolidated sources of news of which almost all will be exclusively online.

Without circulation sales these papers will have to look for new ways to raise revenue. In short, advertising. Online advertising. This will soon be the news “papers'” principle means of income.

As hard copy sales continue to plummet Robot Cat Football pieces will become golden nuggets in their revenue streams. And as the papers become more dependent on online advertisers’ monies their advertisers will demand more and more click through spikes like this. But novelty news click-baiting is just the tip of the iceberg. There are far more dangerous online problems on the horizon.

A well used, successful, click-baiting method, and the one that really troubles me, is what I call the “Littlejohn”. You know the piece, “heartfelt” caveat followed by sensationalist bile and then an “I didnt mean THAT” disclaimer. Designed not to inform, but purely to whip up a storm and cause a furore.

This is where online news services have changed the game. In the old days we simply didnt read “the other side”. Now, we all check them like morbid drivers self-righteously rubbernecking the scene of a car crash. What’s more we send the link on in “Have you seen this idiot?” emails and tweets.

In doing so we make the opinions of such people incredibly important to the advertisers. And the advertisers are incredibly important to the editors. You see where this is going…! Whatever your political views may be we are inversely giving power to the very people we oppose. Before you know it, the UK press will be rammed with yet more sensationalist Littejohns. Bile spouting arseholes will be the written press’s new darlings. Would Jan Moir have kept her job in the days prior to the ability to gauge accurate readership levels? Instead of being an embarassment, she became a big earner for her paper.

TV news networks are also reliant on advertising revenue and they will look for their own walking, talking versions of these poison pens…. enter Glenn Beck. We’ll be looking back on Kay Burly in “good old days” terms! This style is already clearly evident in the way many radio stations operate. Talksport presenters for instance, always pairs, eschew their own opinions in order to appear polarised and “spark debate”. They intentionally provoke their listeners into calling the show to “put them straight”.

The most frightening stage to this will be when the political spin doctors catch on. Always on the lookout for ways to seduce the public, our political parties will undoubtedly notice the popularity of these polarising figures. As such they’ll be looking for their political counterparts, enter British Sarah Palins. A horrible thought.

So, what should we do? This is a period of transition for the press the world over, not just here in the UK. And it’s a landscape changing by the day. George Orwell spotted this potential situation long before the robot cat kicked his first ball. And he predicted it will “crowd out of existence one or more of the less prosperous papers…..  they will presumably either be destroyed, or they will survive by imitating the tactics of the Ami du Peuple. Hence every paper of this kind, whatever its intentions, is the enemy of free speech.

So if free online news is slowly morphing into “the enemy of free speech” that would leave paywall protected The Times as our only worthy news source and Rupert Murdoch the guardian of freedom. Oh. Ironic? Yep. Confused? Totally.

In all honesty I cant see the world at large choosing to pay for news ever again. Not when it is so readily accessible in it’s “free” form from such reliable sources as the BBC. And that aside, Murdoch put up the paywall to create an uber-viewer that high end advertisers crave. So he’s way ahead of this click game, unsurprisingly.

One thing that we can say for sure n this changing climate is that, although Capitalism will directly, or indirectly, exert increasing pressure as to the content of news it will always be us clicking a mouse button that will truly control what we read.

People really need to grasp this click concept quickly and start using the internet accordingly.

It’s our surfing that is shaping the very way our news is changing, right now.

Think, before every click.

UPDATE: 23/06/2011 Since writing this article The Guardian have announced that due to massive losses from their hardcopy based business plan they are switching their focus to a stronger online emphasis. Private Eye report (pictured) that they are diverting 80% of their resources to online news. Will this result on daily Agelina Jolie updates? I hope not. It will certainly result in more click-baiting though. Worrying times for the integrity of news delivey across the board.

Apologies to The Guardian & The Telegraph. They were merely the papers that triggered this and are far from the worst exponents of the art. I happily read both regularly and suggest you do too.

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