I saw Barry Colman interviewed on Media7 on Thursday night (an NBR-edited version of the interview is below). He was explaining the NBR’s decision to begin charging for ‘premium’ online content.
On the one hand, I admire him for adopting a subscription-model. Media businesses the world over have wrung-hands over this issue for years. They’re rightly frustrated that they invest enormously in journalists, infrastructure and (sometimes) brand-building, developing content (made credible by their hard-earned reputation) then helplessly sit back and watch the world-at-large freely access it. It’s a massive dilemma for the industry and where others have done nothing, you have to admire Barry for doing something – for putting his mouth where he thinks some money might be.
But the rationalisation, at least as he articulated it on Media7, is quite spectacularly flawed.
His argument is that the NBR will only ever charge for content that is the result of significant intellectual work on the part of its staff, and isn’t being covered by other media. “It’s stuff that no one else has got and that’s useful for business”, he specified. He suggested that the subscription strategy will “lift the whole quality of journalism” as he bemoaned the fact that “80% of news is provided by PR people”. But, he reassured us, “we’re pretty good at culling that spin doctor stuff”. Instead, NBR’s subscriber-only content will be for “a story our journalist got first or a story that no other paper is covering”.
Which is a pretty reasonable argument. But it’s not true.
Here’s a link to the NBR’s Ad/Media section. As at Thursday the first piece of subscriber-only content I encountered in the section was a press release announcing the launch of a new PR company. Again, the first piece of subscriber-only content I encountered in the section was a press release announcing the launch of a PR company. A piece of spin, sent by a spin doctor, announcing the arrival of a new team of spin doctors. That, surely, is the very definition of spin. The only way to get more spin would be to have Rafael Nadal deliver the press release while wearing a home-spun jumper.
That story didn’t involve any work on the part of NBR, the story is most certainly being covered by other media and, with all due respect to the PR company involved (and I know them to be lovely people, given I must disclose a connection to them) it’s not particularly useful information for the business community at large.
So while Barry’s rationale made sense, the experience of the subscription service is nonsense. And it lets down the two parties that matter most in this.
It lets down his journalists badly. Quite rightly he trumpets their hard work and intellectual rigour. Quite rightly he publicly values their contribution, to the point where he is prepared to put a price on it. Then he completely undermines that contribution by giving it equal standing with a press release. So either the NBR believes the two things are of the same value, or, more damningly, the NBR can’t tell the difference between a press release and a piece of genuine journalism.
But most fundamentally it lets down readers (and potential subscribers). Barry proudly proclaims that NBR readers are the ‘rich and powerful’, the ‘top of the tree’. (As a regular reader, I rather liked that.) He articulates why he believes that the work of the NBR’s journalists is worth paying for. Then he recycles a press release and wants to charge me for it.
All of which leaves me feeling that while Barry rather generously thinks I’m rich and powerful, he also clearly thinks I’m a bit stupid.