Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s Cudlipp Lecture was a highly intelligent and thoughtful defence of the free-for-all open access content policy at The Guardian.
If I was putting together a dream Fleet Street quiz team, he would be top of my list.
But – at the risk of stretching a metaphor to breaking point – if I was looking for someone to look after the team’s finances, it would be Rupert Murdoch.
For my money Rusbridger is winning the debating competition with Rupert Murdoch on the paywall issue. But the time for debate is over – the time has come for action, to make some money and save journalism jobs.
You can’t argue with the fact that in pure journalism terms, and in terms of The Guardian’s mission to spread liberal values, Rusbridger’s decade-long love affair with all things digital has been an amazing success.
37 million unique users a month is not to be sniffed at (although I’d bet that a huge amount of those are the worthless plankton of readers who drift in via search once in a blue moon from all over the world for a matter of moments).
And being open to all has undoubtedly fuelled some great journalistic triumphs that wouldn’t have been possible behind a paywall: the Twitter revolt which led to the Trafigura super injunction being dropped; the BAE files investigation website which prompted sources to come forward from around the world; the expose of tax avoidance techniques at Barclays prompted, Rusbridger says, by ‘crowd sourcing’information from readers.
Not to have a fantastic website which is largely open to all for general news is clearly not an option.
Five years ago Press Gazette was a weekly magazine with a gated website. We were drifting towards oblivion as free online competitors covered all the news, debated it and followed it up – while we were labouring away on a declining print-only product.
But it is interesting that Rusbridger’s speech mainly railed against ‘universal paywalls’– something that Murdoch (unless he has really lost the plot) won’t be doing.
I’d wager that Murdoch and Rusbridger are probably going to end up being not that far away from each other in the paywall debate.
The solution both sides come up with will be more nuanced than free versus paid-for.
With The Guardian losing paid-for £1-a-copy sales at a rate of more than 10 per cent a year, sheer pragmatism means that whatever the virtues of the open, link-fed approach to web publishing – it has to start monetising those 37 million web readers fast. Or more precisely, start monetising the few hundred thousand who delve deep into Guardian.co.uk on a regular basis.
That will mean some form of charging for online content (something which it has already begun doing with the paid-for iPhone app).
And News International will continue to offer much of its content for free online, lest it wants Sun and Times readers to instantly desert the paper for the Mirror, Guardian and Telegraph when seeking their fix of online breaking news.