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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why readers always speak with forked tongue

The latest instalment of the debate about how The Guardian is going to pay for itself comes from the USA where some people, such as David Carr, the New York Times's veteran media correspondent, suggest the paper use its current success in exposing NSA secrets to get people to "show a little sugar" by paying for it.

Journalists are often poor at predicting what readers will or will not pay for. Furthermore they are uncharacteristically naive when it comes to believing what they want to hear.

People may pledge money in public for things they advertise their approval of in public but in private their default position is not to pay. You may get a proportion of the readers who would put their hands in their pocket as they might for some charity but that's really no basis for an ongoing commercial endeavour. And for everybody who does so there will be hundreds who will intend to but will never get round to it and tens of thousands more who will remember something else they have to do and simply melt away. I've experienced this at first hand.

And you only have to look at the comments below the fold to see that people are very inventive when it comes to coming up with principled reasons why they won't pay. They never speak the truth, which is they don't feel like it.

But where Carr is mistaken is in thinking the things that papers value - the respect of their peers, getting talked about on TV current affairs programmes, revelations about spying, Pulitzers - are the same things readers value. They aren't. When newspaper buying was the norm rather than the exception people picked them up to keep up with the humdrum stuff - what starlet wore on red carpet, who's starting for England tonight, the court report of a murder in the suburbs, the crossword - rather than a way of keeping up with the exceptional stuff. 

The problem that all the British papers have now is that all that humdrum stuff, apart from the crossword, is provided for free - either by a giveaway newspaper or by the BBC.