Ten years ago, I was working in Washington and observed – as a newspaper journalist based in that media-obsessed town could hardly fail to do – glaring differences between the US print media and our own. The first was the vast numbers employed. To look across the newsroom of the legendary "local" paper, The Washington Post, was to be awed, but also to ask what on earth all these people contributed to the puny news sections delivered daily to our door.
The second was the domination of classified advertising – pages and pages of it, mostly local and regional. It was highly profitable and helped explain why the Post could employ such an enormous staff. And the third difference, at least then, was the vast investment – of money and faith – in the internet, with success counted in "hits" and peripheral marketing of brands.
That model came an early cropper when the losses of the online operation were revealed and more than 100 people – on this part of the paper alone – lost their jobs. Not only had the online Post failed by a big margin to turn a profit, but the newspaper itself was haemorrhaging its classifieds to new, dedicated, advertising websites.
Since then, many venerable US papers have folded, and the same questions have been posed on both sides of the Atlantic: how can such an antique creation as a newspaper be made financially viable in the digital age? Should it try? If the future is the internet, why don't we all give up the messy business of paper, printing and distribution, and simply commit our words and pictures to the bandwidth?
The reason why not – although it is remarkable how many apparently sane and sensible people fail to grasp this – is that, while newspapers present a sickly financial model, the present internet model is even worse. Internet journalism has still not proved that it can exist without readers who pay.
Most online-only sites do not originate material, or if they do, many contributors are unpaid. Editors are primarily collators: they pick and choose from articles that we in the old-fashioned media are paid for by our employers. They survive essentially by piggy-backing off others. Is it not obvious that, so long as online journalism cannot pay for itself, it cannot be the exclusive shape of the future?
Now this is something not to be shouted too loudly in liberal British circles, but I have recently felt grateful, for the second time in my career, to the media magnate, Rupert Murdoch. The first time was when he broke the power of the print unions by summarily moving his London-based papers to Wapping. This was something only a proprietor with his money and determination could have done.
It was not pretty, and the ruthlessness and deception the move entailed left wounds that remain unhealed to this day. But it freed British newspapers, and that includes journalists, from the blackmail and censorship of the print unions. By cutting operational costs, it also made new newspapers, such as The Independent, possible. The lack of a similar shake-out in US newspapers, along with their dependence on classified advertising, is one reason why they have fared so badly in the current climate.
The second reason for being grateful to Murdoch is that he has just pledged to do something else that only someone with his determination and clout would have a chance of carrying through. He has said that his newspaper group will start to charge internet readers for what we have learnt to call "content": the words and pictures that journalists produce.
While some papers, including this one, have tried to charge for online material, no one has really succeeded, except the financial press. It is not only that payments reduce the "hit" rate and attendant advertising. It is that published articles can be usually be found elsewhere on the internet for free. Charging then becomes counterproductive.
What this means, though, is that online readers everywhere are subsidised by those who buy a printed copy. And while paper, print, distribution and the rest probably should make a physical copy of a newspaper more expensive than an online version – and the convenience and aesthetic attraction of a real newspaper should not be underestimated – is there really no intrinsic value in words and pictures that someone has worked to produce?
It is all very well for internet lobbyists and political groups, such as Sweden's newly successful Pirate Party, to argue that a "digital generation" expects free "content" and will never, ever, agree to pay for it. But a logical consequence of giving it away is that journalism ceases to offer paid employment at all. For if no one pays to read the written word, no one except advertisers or agitators will commission it.
It has been a signal failure of journalists, and our trade unions, not to have banded together against the provision of free "content" on the internet. Yes, it was flattering to gain so many readers, and maybe in the paper's interest. But the journalist's stock in trade has been grievously devalued. If it was not feasible for the papers to charge for our online material, we should have lobbied for another cost base, such as a copyright tax on internet providers. That should still be an option.
Which brings us to a final, perhaps decisive, difference between newspapers in the US and and Britain: the special place occupied here by the BBC. Murdoch may yet succeed in charging for his newspapers' content. But his chances are far better in the US than here. This is not just because many US papers are in an even more parlous state than ours, but because, in focusing on the competition from other papers, the British press has ignored a much greater presence.
The expansion of the BBC, not just into a myriad radio and television channels, but also online, has brought it into direct competition with newspapers. And while much of its material originates in broadcasting, much of it is unique to the web. It may be too late to ask why newspapers did not challenge the BBC's online proliferation sooner. After all, the websites were developed with licence-payers' money. But if newspapers in Britain are serious about charging for content, they have little choice but to unite and take on the BBC.Reuse content