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Rusbridger on the digital media

Yesterday Alan Rusbridger gave the Hugh Cudlipp lecture, looking at the impact of the digital media on journalism.

One recurring theme in the lecture was the contrast between a paywall business model (which requires payment before content can be accessed on the web), and a model where newspapers give content away for free on their websites. Rusbridger suggested that a paywall model comes at the expense of influence – charging for content online reduces your audience and cuts you off from the networked world. By contrast, those newspapers that give content away are more likely to secure a global audience and be commented on in the blogosphere.

While the industry is in crisis in terms of finance – in terms of reach, audience and influence, the Guardian is (according to Rusbridger) growing and in December 2009 its journalism:

was read by 37 million people around the world – very roughly a third in the UK, a third in North America and a third in the rest of the world.

This goes to show how some established newspapers are getting bigger and bigger audiences. The trend might benefit those titles at the very top, but this is surely not the case for some other newspapers – like those local newspapers that are struggling to survive. The problem is that to prosper in the way Rusbridger describes, you need to produce content that can be given away (and attract regular attention), which itself requires investment.

The question is whether the sources of revenue for the free-on-the-web media can support a sufficiently diverse range of media organisations. For all the talk of democratisation, this could lead to a new media concentration in which only a very small handful of sites enjoy global attention. This may be a ‘beacon of hope’ for the Guardian, but I’m not sure that applies to the rest of the media.

The lecture, I think, is spot on in relation to the relationship between a newspaper and the content produced by its readers:

We feel as if we are edging towards a new world in which we bring important things to the table – editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers. The members of that community could not hope to aspire to anything like that audience or reach on their own; they bring us a rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.

The two are complementary – among all the user generated content, there is still the role for the mass media to bring the material to a wide audience.

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