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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What if free media isn't the future? What if it's a dead end?

Two interesting pieces of media futurology. The fact that they're both written by people who used to be in senior positions at the Guardian makes them even more interesting.

Emily Bell, who used to be in charge of the Guardian's digital assets, wonders if the days of newspaper websites might be numbered.  As she says, there may not be much room for them in a media market that increasingly "tolerates the micro, favours the mega and rolls over most entities inbetween."

At the same time Peter Preston, who used to be the Guardian's editor, is sceptical of The Independent's claim that their move to digital-only means they'll be "as focussed and uncompromised as any start-up but with all the authority and trust of an established news brand." As he points out, the start-ups don't try to do all the stuff that the newspapers have traditionally had to do to justify the costs of the package.

When those papers moved online they brought the elements of the package with them. Sections devoted to opinion, sport, music, films and think pieces about Breaking Bad expanded to fill the space available to them, which was suddenly limitless. The BBC did something similar, albeit their commitment to even-handedness meant they weren't much good at the comment. At the same time the borderless world of the internet meant that the fluff being done by the U.S. papers and websites was suddenly just as accessible as the home-grown fluff. We now live in a world where if you want to know what columnists thinks about what Lena Dunham said about what Kesha said about Dr Luke then you could spend your every waking hour reading that and nothing but that.

This century's fluff explosion was bankrolled by newspapers in the belief that it would be followed by advertising. Now they've realised it won't be. Paywalls are going up everywhere. Newspapers are closing. At the same time even the BBC is having to cut back on some of its fluffier website content.

I wonder if in a few years time this Niagara of free stuff will have been turned off and we'll realise that it only came to pass during a brief window when the people who produced it thought there was some benefit in giving it away. Free wasn't the inevitable way of the future. It was a dead end.