Bloggers vs commentators

August 18, 2010

Apparently The Times has lost about 90% of its online readership since putting up its paywall. This, apparently, is less than they expected. This David Mitchell article from a few weeks back argues that a paywall is a necessary means of making journalism pay and that if we don’t argue against the idea that we should get our journalism and news for free the whole concept of a free press – and the vital roles it plays – is in trouble.

I think he is broadly right. And I don’t know enough about new media business models to work out whether it’s possible to make enough money from other sources without erecting a paywall. What I think has changed for the better is the challenge to commentators from blogs. There’s a lot of poor quality, shrill and downright insane blogs out there that are no replacement for decent journalism. But there’s also a lot of really good stuff too. Things like Bad Conscience, Normblog and Stumbling and Mumbling are all well written, insightful and often highly original and informative. Many of the people writing them come from interesting backgrounds and know their onions from their leeks. Unfortunately, this offers a stark contrast to many highly paid commentators in mainstream newspapers.

This piece by John Harris – tony-blair-book-journey-over – in the Guardian is exactly what you would have written if asked to predict what John Harris would write on Tony Blair’s memoirs. It’s crowd pleasing predictability. It’s a Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire encore for the V Festival. Plus it sits amongst 45 other articles all saying the same thing. For other examples see Seamus Milne on anything to do with Iraq or Afghanistan or Henry Porter on civil liberties. Ditto various people in the Mail or Telegraph on anything to do with the EU or ‘elf and safety. It’s a core vote strategy – and it’s utterly boring.

There are exceptions and I always enjoy reading people like George Monbiot, John Rentoul and Will Hutton – but their strengths are in analysing the news and providing original thought and comment on it. This is what I thought the point of commentators was.

I don’t know. Maybe, like a core vote strategy, you have to mirror the opinions of the middle point of your readership to achieve a certain level of sales and these articles do that. But it would seem their professional position is being undermined by a more diverse set of bloggers who don’t have to play to an audience and who are often far more informative for the reader because of it. It doesn’t solve the problem of paying for the news, but this seems like a good thing.

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