Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sleeping Around With The Press

I'm a bit promiscuous with my newspaper consumption. I flit between The Times, The Independent and The Guardian and feel no loyalty to any of them. Sometimes I am positively slutty – I'll take one in a cafĂ© or waiting room then buy another to have my evil way with at home.

Usually they delight and annoy me in equal measure. I buy them based on how interested or annoyed I am by the front page. Is The Indie lecturing me again? Has The Times gone off on some Murdoch inspired rant? Is The Guardian whining?

Sometimes I buy based on the offer; the poster, the teach-yourself book, the give-away DVD. Actually I make my purchase decision on this basis more often than befits the dilettante intellectual that I fancy myself to be.

Yesterday (Friday 17th July 2009) I happened to buy The Guardian – I am not sure if it was the Free Italian Phrasebook or the front page story about the colonel killed in Afghanistan that persuaded me on this occasion. I wondered if The Guardian would question why his life seemed to be worth more than the 183 other British casualties to date in that conflict (they didn't really).

I do also like the Berliner format more than the broadsheet or tabloid format used by the others. It feels so ... European and I feel just that teensy bit cleverer for reading a paper the same shape as 'Le Monde'.

Anyway, I was on holiday on Friday and it was raining so I had time to have a good old read and I was struck very forcibly by two things: how good the Guardian was that day and then how, surely, if they (and the others) could be that good every day, their business models wouldn't be so worryingly under threat from the internet.

The main paper was OK, the front page article on swine flu led with the worst-case-scenario version of the story rather than the most-likely-scenario but that's par for the course – they have papers to sell and we lap that shit up. A story that the swine flu pandemic may be no worse than an average winter for flu related deaths is, of course, unlikely to shift additional papers.

It was the supplements that did it on Friday. G2 majored on a Martin Amis piece on Iran which was quite brilliant. On the way there you couldn't help but dip into the hilarious 'Lost in Showbiz' hatchet job on Trudi Styler and then later worry about the fate of the talented and funny Graham Norton (he surfaced as a guest host on the Jack Docherty Show which I Exec-ed) who is being pilloried for his new show 'Totally Saturday' and who seems to have totally lost his way at the BBC. Then there was a great piece about the retiring head of The Fawcett Society's Katherine Rake ('Feminism's Calm Champion') and the role of feminism in the late 2000's.

In the Film and Music supplement there was quite a good 'Bruno' piece about TV and film pranksters (it was a bit hard on Dom Joly whose Trigger Happy shows (which I Exec-ed) were very new and hip a when they appeared) and good stuff on the new HP movie and more ...

The fact that I can link to perfectly satisfactory versions of those articles here and you can read them for free says a lot about the problems that newspapers are having with the digital age. Newspapers opted to go with 'free' online – hoping that advertisers would pick up the tab.

I have just been back and forth to the Guardian's website a dozen times to write this post and I can't recall seeing a single ad there. The eye has an uncanny ability to filter out the stuff it knows the mind isn't interested in. The recession has just compounded a problem that was lurking in the background – advertisers just aren't (and never were) going to pick up the tab for all the free stuff on the web.

The problem of 'free' on the web is also masking another problem for newspapers. Consciously or subconsciously, we just don't believe them any more because they publish such utter bollocks so much of the time. Now we have the web it is so easy to find the facts behind most stories and the facts are rarely as 'interesting' as the versions that newspapers present. For a purely medical view on the swine flu epidemic for example which is not trying to sell papers, you can always look at the excellent NHS - Behind The Headlines website which debunks many an exaggerated story.

Another big plus for The Guardian is Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science' column. Not only does it do a great job of exposing lazy and dishonest science and science journalism, it also keeps The Guardian honest. They MUST think, when they are knocking around various idiotic interpretations of dodgy stories, 'Wait a minute – what's Ben going to think about this?'

Friday's Guardian pointed the way towards newspaper salvation for me. For headline breaking news the genie is out of the bottle – we are used to getting that for free and there is no turning back from that one.

But would I pay for an online/offline version of The Guardian if it was consistently as good as last Friday's? You bet I would. It's not a question of whether I'd be willing to pay, its a question of how.

I keep coming back to the money I pay Virgin Media every month to get my media brought to my home by cable. Plus the money I pay for the License fee. I pay a subscription, I don't pay at the point of delivery.

Would I pay more for (or would I drop some services to be able to afford) a subscription to an online version of Friday's Guardian and maybe a compendium supplement mailed to me once a week? You bet I would. If The Guardian can re-discover its former greatness and up its game and if it can figure out a real 'fremium' model on the web it will laugh off the recession and the trouble with 'free'.

These are big 'if's' – but Friday 17th July gave me hope. I need newspapers to get this right. I like being promiscuous and slutty with them. And if they make an effort, I don't mind paying for it.

UPDATE: here's Peter Preston in The Observer wondering how newspapers are going to get readers to pay for their content