Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Murdoch's Tune and its Finnish Remix

By this entry I end the short (cross-Atlantic) silence and join the chain of bloggers pondering about the pay-to-read plan of the Mogul Murdoch.

The recent Economist (the paper version, dated 8/8), summarises the matter in its fabulously concise manner:
[RM] said he expected that all of his websites would charge users for access within a year, despite his previous commitment (...) News Corporation's boss was speaking as the company revealed a quarterly loss, caused in part by its struggling MySpace social-networking site. The media mogul has sparked an intense debate about ending free access to online news content; many observers remain sceptical that such plan will work.
The Guardian's (UK) superb media blogger Roy Greenslade has posted a comment with a compilation of international reactions to the news. Somewhat ironically (given his affiliation) he remains amongst the sceptics. He summarises the discussions : "publishers across the world are dancing to Murdoch's tune" .

The tune in Finland is upbeat and celebratory. In the related story by the business paper Taloussanomatthe commercial media houses are noted to "greet the decision with joy". It will be a rocky road, but solutions for commercially viable net-based news operations will surely be found, is the main drift.

The issue here is that Murdoch's tune allows these Finnish companies, once more, to gather the complaints choir about the role of public service media company YLE.  Representatives of the two big media houses Alma Media and Sanoma are joined in unison, in stating that YLE's free news services hinder free competition. They demand that not all of the public service news services should be free; and even that YLE would become sort of pay-tv / pay-media content provider through licence fee.

The worry that lurks behind the complaint tune is more than understandable. Look at BBC's success online. Also, the UK and German debates and experiences on restricting public service media indicate that this line of argumentation is taken seriously. And a recent study about newspaper readership in Finland indicates that young people increasingly go to online only for the news. For instance, the State of the News Media study by PEW shows that the trend is exactly the same in the U.S..

Let's get to the bottom line with another quote from the Economist in its recent lead on the future of the news (and let's remember its generally conservative market- and  business-oriented drift...):
[O]nly certainty about the future of news is that it will be different from the past. It will no longer be dominated by a few big titles whose front pages determine the story of the day. Public opinion will, rather, be shaped by thousands of different voices, with as many different focuses and points of view. As a result, people will have less in common to chat about around the water-cooler. Those who are not interested in political or economic news will be less likely to come across it; but those who are will be better equipped to hold their rulers to account. Which is, after all, what society needs news for.
To echo Greenslade, would Murdoch, Alma & Sanoma be happy serving these smaller, kind of elite news audiences that pay services might create?  Those who prefer to check out news online only are most likely not the core target segments that would want to pay for online services. Greenslade suspects, in fact, that if Murdoch's plan is not only a trick to stir up the market, he will look into combining on and offline subscription.

A broader question of public service, media and democracy: I seem to remember that a key part of the very mandate of public service is to inform. Public and scholarly memory tends to be short in these days of constant change in the media landscape, but remember: in the 1990s and early 2000s the Finnish commercial television channels have complained about the entertainment content produced by public service. As so much research in Europe indicates (re: Finland, Aslama, Hellman, Sauri 2004), in past public service has very much taken the role of filling in the gap in the expanding media markets. And, yet, a part of public service mission has traditionally been full service and universal access. A tough call. 

I suppose the commercial operators are arguing that given the fee / public funding public service is not free. Needless to say, their tune is based on the idea of media content being as any product, and media policy being about industrial policy. They surely want to guarantee diverse news supply, but ultimately save their business.

Well, another option would be to take an opposite approach, a model of online quality or 'accountability' journalism as emerging in the U.S.: newspapers / news services as non-profits (see, e.g., the article by the Christian Science Monitor summarising the trend, and Leonard Downie's analysis in British Journalism Review). Finland has a tradition of press subsidies, anyhow, so some sort of model could be set up... 

Utopian thinking aside, my point is, really: Murdoch's tune and other complaint choirs do not necessarily further and broaden the core content discussion about what news will and should be and who participate in the production and distribution. It's a little scary, since, as the Economist noted, the ultimate role of news is to inform, connect people, and enable political participation in democratic societies. 

NOTE: there is such a thing as a complaints choir: it's a Finnish invention but now an international avant garde phenomenon that was featured, for example, in the PS1/MoMA contemporary art exhibition in New York... Here's an example of academic complaints, sung by the choir of the University of Tampere, Finland.

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