Sunday, July 11, 2010

Poop show

A thought-provoking article by David Mitchell in today’s Observer. He argues that, whatever we might think of Rupert Murdoch and his deeds, the decision to impose a paywall on the Times and Sunday Times doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it by bien-pensant liberals. Ultimately, it is important that a professional, independent, accountable news media exists, and by weaning consumers off the notion that information is free, Murdoch might be helping to ensure that. The alternative, Mitchell suggests, is to hand the whole process over to the blogosphere:
Not that there’s anything wrong with amateur bloggers – except that there’s masses wrong with thousands of them. While some of the stuff written for free on the internet is brilliant, a lot of it – probably most of it – is shit. For every badly written, offensive, incendiary tabloid column, there are hundreds of online opinions that are worse and contain even more lies – provable lies in many cases, but usually coming from someone whose anonymity or poverty effectively preclude their being sued. The press can’t stray too far from the truth or its legal bills get out of control.
The problem is, it’s not just about incendiary tabloid columns, the Littlejohns and the the Moirs, is it? It’s every article that’s nothing more than a rehashed press release, with no independent research or second opinion. It’s every disguised advertorial for the newspaper proprietor’s other products or for his political proclivities. It’s every narcissistic lifestyle column about how exasperating middle-class life in London’s more fashionable postcodes can be. It’s the remorseless encroachment of vacuous celebrity culture into areas that were once free from its sulphurous embrace. Just as with blogs, there’s masses wrong with thousands of them. Sturgeon’s Law, as ever, prevails; 90% of everything is crap.

But the most galling wrongness in this context is when articles are blatantly lifted from blogs and other online sources without attribution, because just as bloggers are too poor to be sued, they’re also too insignificant to be able to create waves when they’re the victims of plagiarism. For all that legitimate journalists complain about amateur media, many of them would find life considerably tougher without it.

There is much that is good about the mainstream news media. David Mitchell’s columns for one thing; he’s a clever, funny polemicist whose one-liners often make their point more cogently than any number of ‘proper’ journalists can manage. I don’t know how much he’s paid, but I’m sure he’s worth it. However, his conclusion, that “many people only really value something they’ve paid for” deserves rather more analysis than he gives it. It’s not just money that persuades consumers that something is better than it is; it’s an association with what many still perceive to be ‘real’ media – whether it’s The Times or The Observer, BBC or CNN, Angling Times or Kerrang! – that often persuades them that what they’re reading or watching or hearing is rather better than it really is.

PS: Meanwhile, Shane Richmond deals with the paywall side of Mitchell’s argument.


Anonymous said...

Same hymn sheet?

AS to the assumption that people value what they pay for; what is more likely to be the case, if this argument holds true, is that people will buy the cheapest paper.

Seems like snakes and ladders!

That's Not My Age said...

I think this whole paywall thing is fascinating, I'd like to fast-forward six months and see how it pans out!
PS Love David Mitchell's column

Annie said...

I know he's funny, but he's everywhere, all the bloody time.

I think it's funny too that you would trust the evil news empires more because you pay for them, when they are so driven by political agendas. (Some blogs might be shit but then they are usually written by individuals and claim no impartiality or objectivity like the mainstream press.)

Just remembering when a friend of mine worked for a magazine in the Murdoch stable, a woman's magazine & nothing heavyweight, she claimed she was free to write as she liked but admitted she would never write about black interviewees because she knew her editor wouldn't publish them. The readers wouldn't relate to someone black.

Rog said...

I remember poo-pooping Murdoch's ambition to make people pay for Television when every home had free television channels already. He proved me wrong by spending billions at Sky building up a USP in the form of value-added sports coverage that people couldn't access elsewhere.

I must say I found the The Guardian's welcome to Times readers (which was NOT written in jest) worthy of a giant sick-bag coming, as it did, from an organization losing something like half a million quid a week and laying off proper journalists.

Proper independent professional journalism, the type that broke Watergate or Douglas Hogg's Moat, is worth paying for but all the time it's available free I'm not going to pay for it. Even my favouritest newsy print read Private Eye (which I've always paid for) couldn't exist without the salaried Fleet Street staff upon whom much of its news stream depends.

I say good luck Rupert and shame on The Guardian and Telegraph for not joining in on a concerted drive to prove that good news reporting, backed by desirable feature reads like Charlie Brooker et al, is worth paying for.

The alternative seems to be that we gradually dumb down to the level of You Tube comment streams.

Tim F said...

MIT: Not necessarily; if they really believe that, they'll pay more, because they think they'll get more in return. (The best-selling car isn't the cheapest, is it?) Also, there's a concept in economics called the Veblen good, where demand for a product increases when the price rises.

You're not the only one, TNMA. I could see it coming, but I'm surprised it's the Times that's doing it. Would have expected a paper with a more defined, committed reader base. We know what a Guardian reader is, a Telegraph reader, a Mail reader. But what's a Times reader?

I agree, Annie. He's very good, but I do worry that he's going to turn into Tony Slattery. The magazine story doesn't surprise me, nor is it restricted to Murdoch product.

Yes, I thought the Guardian piece was way out of line, Rog. I agree with your point about Watergate etc, but the proportion of lifestyley irrelevance in newspapers was getting out of hand in the 80s, well before they had any serious competition. Maybe news (which is very difficult to copyright) can be a free resource, but people have to pay for the add-ons (Brooker, Mitchell, Clarkson, Liz Jones) that they want.

But why should we dumb down to YouTube levels? Maybe we can clever up to the levels of comment we can see right here...

Anonymous said...

Oh! clever-up...yes, I like it.
(And if I use it, I shall, of course, credit my source: a blog.)

Fat Roland said...

On the internet, people don't value something more if it's paid for. I value this here blog, but I don't pay for it. When I had a TV licence, I didn't necessarily value the BBC website more than other websites. Not convinced.

(I just posted this bit in the Telegraph comments section:) I think Richmond misses the point of Mitchell's argument by a magnititude of several light years. Mitchell also disagrees with paywalls: it's the blanket demonisation of Murdoch that really got his goat. Richmond makes some good points though.

Tim F said...

Just credit it to the blogosphere, MIT. We're a digital hive mind.

FR: The problem comes because we have to translate value into financial terms. Just been listening to a story about a primary school head who earned over 200K last year. Everybody agrees the guy is superb at what he does. But apparently not *that* much.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pointer to Sturgeon's Law. Which then took me to minced aoths - no not aoths, which sound like some steampunk Saxon beasts - but oaths.
So - Sturgeon says 90% of everything is crud - though the crud is usually replaced with crap.
The idea of my mother saying the word crap makes me wince - though it has become so common and neutered. Would crud be better? Perhaps - except it would be so contrived, so thought through as to be worse somehow.
Is crud - for all its shortness - too considered to be a spontaneous comment?
(The answer is yes, btw.)
Minced Oaths - if you ever get tired of Cultural Snow as a handle, you can have that for free.