Media figures debate value of content


'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money'. Samuel Johnson's observation will be debated by a panel of leading media names at an event organised by the Periodical Publishers' Association at the House of Commons later this month.
The debate is described by PPA chair Barry McIlheney as being "right at the heart of the changes facing the magazine sector today". He's not wrong. The issue of whether or not to charge for content, and therefore pay those who produce it, is one which provokes fierce debate in the industry.

Some would say the days of the journalistic elite are over, swept away by an age when anyone can publish. This, combined with a view that says information should be free for all to access on a point of principle, means the days of paying for content look numbered.

Content creators But that creates a problem. For if no one is going to pay to read the content that's being created, there will be no money to pay for the creation of content. And that's not something that should be of concern just to journalists and other content creators, but to everyone.

It's a very tricky debate. Freedom of access on the web is a deeply engrained principle. Tim Berners-Lee, the man generally acknowledged to have 'invented' the web, said he made it a free facility rather than a private enterprise because "otherwise, it would not have worked".

Think about how you surf the web. If you had to pay every time you clicked on a new site, you'd almost certainly do a lot less surfing. So in the very simplest of terms, the paywall solution being advanced by such media giants as Rupert Murdoch doesn't connect with the reality of consumer behaviour.

All about value There are more complex arguments about whether the traditional model of newspaper advertising subsidising editorial content has any life left in it too, but at the heart of every debate is the key question of 'what is the value of content?'

It's at this point that the example of The Guardian comes into the picture. The Guardian website is widely acknowledged to be one of the best news sites, and the paper – or as we say nowadays, 'brand' – has produced some excellent news journalism. But it is losing money.

Giving its content away for free is a point of principle for The Guardian, whose editor Alan Rusbridger believes online revenues will eventually outstrip those from print. They almost certainly will, but will the revenues generated be enough to fund the journalism the paper has become famous for?

Alan Rusbridger Interviewed by the German title Der Speigel, Rusbridger expresses the view that "people who demand money from him are simply pretending reporters are still the only experts". I'd see it as people wanting to earn a living, something Rusbridger can do very nicely on the £400,000+ salary he seems happy enough to earn for his own expert contribution.

At the PPA debate on 24 October, David Hepworth from Word magazine and former Radio Times editor Gill Hudson will speak in favour of the motion, while Shortlist Media's Phil Hilton and Spiked reporter Patrick Hayes will speak against.

Hepworth says: "I do believe that the people who believe content should be free have been living in a fool's paradise built for them by media organisations who once thought that advertising was going to pay the bills. They don't believe that anymore and everyone's going to have to either pay up or watch it all go away."

Work to live And there's the problem. If content creators – and that's journalists, musicians, film-makers... – cannot earn enough to live on, how long will they be able to carry on? What sort of journalism will come from those who don't need to earn to live? Will content produced by those prepared to do it for little or nothing be good enough?

These are not just questions about status and elite concepts of quality and profession. Look at the global giants of the modern age – Apple, Amazon and Google. They make money by selling content. If the quality of that content declines, or if content dries up –will they still make money?
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