Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Woolly Day

In September 2008, The Australian's media writer Mark Day famously wrote that blogging had all the intellectual value of graffiti on a toilet door. Day claimed this was a phrase he overheard but it is reasonable to believe he shares the opinion. And judging by his column in today's paper he hasn't backed away much from the toilet door. His headline “bloggers may howl but there’s sense in cash for content” went hunting for condemnation of Rupert Murdoch’s paywall plans and found it in the blogosphere. Here, said Day, “99 per cent of the reaction was negative ranging from the adamant ‘I will not pay, full stop’, to the slightly more wistful ‘bye-bye News’”. Unfortunately Day didn’t name his howlers so I can't tell you who he was talking about. Most of the arguments I’ve read about the pros and cons of paywalls in the last few days (in paid and unpaid media) were a lot more well-informed and reasoned than the examples found in Day’s “blogosphere”.

What makes these attacks more puzzling is that Day’s rage against bloggers are to be found in a column called “Mark Day’s blog”. And it is a proper blog (not just shovelware from the print column) because of one important addition: the ability of his audience to add comments. It was Spinopsys (itself a hybrid creation “somewhere between Twitter and a blog”) who solved the conundrum for me when he linked to a comment Day himself made on the blog this afternoon. Day piped up after most of his previous commenters had expressed strong opposition to the paywall. “There’s very limited support for paid news sites. Are we surprised?” responded Day. “No. It’s fully anticipated (along with the abuse which some of you persist with, goodness knows why) and emphasises the point I make in the column ... the blogosphere is opposed, almost by definition.”

But there was a problem with Mark Day's own definition. He conflated blog commenters with blog authors. In revealing his inability to differentiate between the two, Day showed exactly how little he knows about what is happening outside his cosy little world of club journalism. And perhaps worryingly, his opinion may just be reflecting the boss. Day is an experienced old-fashioned journalist in the Murdoch mould who has also dabbled in business (he was the last owner of the century old muckraking tabloid Truth before it collapsed in 1995). And his Australian column “On Media” is a weekly rehashing of various Murdoch mantras such as “Rump of [Packer] empire a juicy no-brainer for News” (6 Dec 2007), “don’t die in the ditch for privacy reform” (14 Aug 2008), or “Clamour for paid sites rises as newspapers struggle” (9 Feb 2009).

It is interesting that this last article is not available online, because it seems Murdoch was paying attention back in February. Day wrote that article in the wake of News Corp’s 2008 last quarter $US8.4b write-off to which Murdoch’s response that “more people than ever are hungry for news”. The problem then as Day saw it was not a lack of readers but a lack of revenue caused by the industry’s giveaway culture. He said that the idea of paying for newspapers when the content is freely available on the net is “insanity, [and] a lunacy, that by all logic must be reversed”. Day canvassed the idea of a universal payment system that might involve digital coins or tollway digital passes (Charlie Brooker also toys with micropayment “magical coins” idea today in the Guardian). But even at a few cents a pop (Day suggested $30 a month), the end result of such a system would be a two tier system of Internet access where only the wealthy will not worry about how many hundreds of impulse clicks they might do in a day. Yet Day did get close to a possible solution to the problem. The $30, he said, “is what most people pay their internet service provider to deliver it now”.

The Internet, as he reminds us, is not free now. We generally accept we must pay for broadband connection fees. It is the ISPs and mobile phone companies whom we happily pay so we can get access to our Internet news. Could it be possible that people might pay an extra $20 or $30 up front and allow service providers and content makers to divvy it up? While the telcos and ISPs won’t warm to having their income streams tampered with, the smart ones will be those who hook up earliest with the big content providers and work out a deal. These partners will have some chance of surviving the carnage that will be unleashed by paywalls. Oddly enough, I expect the redoubtable Day will also somehow ride out the storm. Like some white-haired Lear, he’ll be found howling somewhere on the electronic heath, spitting out invective against his ungrateful daughters in the “blogosphere” who never appreciated the good work he did in dividing up the kingdom.

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