David Leigh came up with an idea to “save newspapers”. Every broadband customer would be forced to pay £2 per month to fund newspapers. Lots was subsequently written about it, most of it contemptuous.
The problems with this idea are so obvious and numerous that I didn’t bother writing anything about it to add to the cacophony of derisive comments (the only person I noticed having something nice to say about it was Leigh’s Guardian colleague Roy Greenslade). He is by no means the first to have thought of it, just the first to have not immediately realised that it could never and should never work.
The obvious unfairness inherent in picking out a particular sub-sector of the media to benefit. The lazy complacency which would inevitably result from guaranteed, unearned income rolling in every year. The perverse incentives which a traffic-based method for dividing up the money would create, not to mention the barriers to entry. The admission of defeat inherent in the whole proposal. The obvious challenge of forcing users to pay a new tax whether or not they like it. The conflict between a press beholden to government subsidy and a free press which holds politics to account.
The more you think about it, the longer the list of objections gets.
But lurking within it are two questions which are actually more relevant and interesting.
How can a newspaper like the Guardian (or any creative endeavour for that matter) which succeeds online be rewarded for its success? Answering this conundrum answers all of the challenges the internet currently poses for professional creativity.
Obviously, not adopting a model which abandons not just revenue but any prospect of achieving revenue would be a start. Nothing can stand in the way of a company hell-bent on oblivion, and spending a fortune to make a product which you give away to everyone is pretty much the definition of a business which will fail.
But the second question is the one David Leigh and others should really be posing for legislators.
Why is it actually impossible right now for a business model which rewards popular success to be found?
If you’re going to ask politicians to help solve your problems, this is a better one for them to get their teeth into rather than simply asking them to write you a cheque.
Copyright lies at the heart of answering this conundrum. Where copyright is weak we see hyper-inflation of copying (so its easy to feel successful due to the illusion of popularity) but a complete collapse in value. This is what is happening online and it prevents viable business models even being imagined. Where copyright is strong, as we have seen from the last few hundred years of analogue media, we create wealth, choice and diversity.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and a more sustainable solution can be found by looking at the generic issue rather than making special pleadings for businesses and products which might just be dying of natural causes.
Once it’s possible to have a good newspaper business online, it will be up to the skills and ingenuity of The Guardian and others to actually run one. If they succeed they will be rewarded with a viable product generating lots of revenue and which has no need for taxpayer support. If they fail it will be their own fault, but someone will take their place.
The first thing the politicians need to do is get a grip on copyright.
The first thing the Guardian needs to do is just get a grip.