Radio 4 investigates new media models

The latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Business’ brought some real insight into how the top guns in the media are thinking about new revenue models – and some reasons to be cheerful for those working at every level of journalism.

‘Press Under Pressure’, broadcast on May 6th and again on the 9th, went first to the US, where both the crisis in journalism and ideas about new business models have been running ahead of the British scene for some time.

Bosses at the Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine agreed that the decision by most of the print media to give away content over the Internet was a mistake, and blamed the ‘rise of the free’ culture for much of the industry’s current woes.

‘There’s a metaphorical human that came from California, maybe from Google, with a PhD in computer science from Stanford who came east to New York and said, “Hey man, information needs to be free. You guys have to put all of your stuff up on the Internet for free, otherwise you don’t get it.” We listened to this metaphorical guy, and perhaps we shouldn’t have,’ said Fortune’s managing editor Andrew Serwer. Now, like many other media proprietors in Manhattan, the magazine is considering charging strategies such as paywalls.

Gordon Crovitz, an entrepreneur who is developing a software system enabling readers to make payments to publishers called PressPLUS, pointed out that when the media world bought Stewart Brand’s legendary dictum ‘Information wants to be free’, it didn’t hear the second part of the sentence: ‘information also wants to be expensive’. In doing so, they were missing a trick well-understood by business information giants like Reuters and Bloomberg, he argued: while in an information-rich age folk won’t pay for widely-available general news, they will stump up for information which is specifically targeted at them and meets their needs.

Back in Britain, presenter Peter Day then talked to the publishers of two print titles which have been bucking the trend of declining sales: the Financial Times, which has a rising number of readers outside the UK, and the Economist, whose worldwide circulation has in recent years shot up to 1,400,000 a week.

The results were cheering. The FT’s chief executive John Ridding attributed the paper’s confidence in introducing a paywall to an unshakeable conviction that ‘quality journalism is worth paying for’.

Meanwhile, Economist editor John Micklethwait identified, among other trends, ‘a big wiseing-up of the market’ bringing growing numbers of readers with an appetite for intelligent news and ideas.

The programme didn’t go on to apply the lessons to the other end of the spectrum, but it could have done. ‘Think niche’ is already the governing dictum for a growing number of media start-ups who are responding to an appetite for hyper-local and specialised journalism. Like the media giants targeting the business community, they are identifying a readership and an information need in a canny, business-like way.

What is less certain is whether they share the growing confidence at the top that people should and will – as cooperative advocate David Boyle has argued – be prepared to pay for local and community news.

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