A comment piece on the decline of the newspaper industry, in today’s Guardian.

So the wise old lion has roared again. Rupert Murdoch has threatened the orthodoxy and offered a possible lifeline to the struggling newspaper industry by declaring that his titles will start charging for online content. But how did anyone seriously come to believe that news information could be free in the first place?

The slogan that information wants to be free is often attributed to an influential former hippie called Stewart Brand in the 1980’s. Like many veterans of the communes which had sprung up around the San Francisco area in the late 1960’s, Brand had become intrigued by the prospect that the brand new medium of the net could give the faded ideals of California’s counter-culture a fresh lease of life. Just like the commandos of the counter-culture, Brand and his fellow electro-hippies thought that they could use the net to burrow under America’s hierarchies and elites and thereby put ordinary people in touch with other. By the 1990’s they had set up Wired magazine, a zippy, infectious paean to the power of new technology to solve the world’s problems, and begun work fleshing out their ideas about the centrality of electronic information to modern life. The current editor-in-chief of Wired Chris Anderson, whose recent book Free argued that the plunging cost of distributing electronic information to large numbers of people means that more things can be provided for free, is the inheritor of this tradition and graciously acknowledges the debt. It was the Wired journalist Jeff Howe, too, who helped to popularise the notion of “crowdsourcing” – the idea that established institutions could use the net to foment a Wikipedia-like conversation with their punters and enlist them as participants in producing the goods.

Ideas like these good on paper, but don’t really stand up to much scrutiny. Distributing information to an audience on the net is vastly cheaper than spending money on printing presses, but the costs involved in producing reliable, trustworthy information are higher than ever. But how did they come to be accepted by journalists? The answer is that we were desperate, and needed something to cling onto. Newspapers were built on the premise that they had a virtual monopoly over an audience which could be packaged up and delivered on to advertisers. The relentless gush of electronic information from the net quickly over-ran that monopoly. The newspaper industry as we know it in Western countries is now over-ripe, and in decline. Ten years ago the response of those in charge to this was a haughty guffawing and a changing of the subject. Gradually, however, many of them let themselves be seduced by the evangelical gee-whizzery of the electro-hippies. It was enough, they said, to be part of the conversation on the net. If huge numbers of people were talking about your newspaper and linking to it, they said, sooner or later the economics would come right.

The funny thing about this argument is not its sure-footed techno-futurism but its rather plodding conservatism. What the gurus of free and the celebrants of the electronic crowd want is to resurrect the mass market for news by having us chat to each other and our newspapers all day long. But between the fusty old newspapermen who refuse to tweet and the bug-eyed gadgeteers who do little else, there is little evidence that the rest of us have the time to be cogs in an electronic machine. Seeing everything through the lens of electronic information, the internet gurus forgot to take at changing demographics and the changing shape of society. Long before the net tore apart its business model, the truth is that many newspapers were looking bloated and fat, as if putting on lifestyle supplements and the advertising which went along with them were all their readers could want. What they wanted, it turns out, was writing by journalists focused enough to know what they’re talking about. The freshest news outlets which are springing up in the United States, for example, are Politico, the magazine aimed at political junkies which broke the scandal of The Washington Post charging companies for access to its reporters, or TMZ, the well-connected celebrity mag which broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death.

News organisations will, as a consequence, divide into populist monoliths which try to invite everyone into their eco-system and be all things to all people – witness the growth of news aggregators, for example – or, more promisingly, they will slim down and concentrate on what they know about. For those which hold their ground and know their niche, the good news is that the advertising industry will eventually have to catch up to the fact that the production of news is moving away from national mainstream outlets into a more global patchwork of niches. What matters then is whether newspapers have anything distinctive enough to pay for, or audiences who are interested enough in reading them to see their demographic data sold onto advertisers in tune with their specific interests. In one way or another, Rupert is right and the free-lords are wrong – we’ll end up having to pay for the news that we really want.