Sunday, April 19, 2009

A licence fee for newspapers?

Very interesting piece by Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian, about the possibility of traditional news-gathering being paid for by a "licence fee" paid by web users. I don't think it will happen because the one thing government's not going to do is propose further taxation for anything like this. However what's clear is that the current situation where newspapers are giving their stuff away for free can't sustain much longer. The boss of the Mirror Group, Sly Bailey, made this clear on Friday.

Local papers are folding already. The next to go will be national titles. Even if they do what the digital zealots advise and migrate all their content to the web, they will only make a tiny fraction of what they make by selling ink on paper. They won't be able to sustain their operations on this revenue and so they will sink. This is something that's becoming more widely accepted with each passing day.

What intrigues me about Preston's piece is his observation that the further the BBC strays from its traditional role of providing news and entertainment on radio and TV and the increasing strain it is forced to take as the nation's primary news provider, the greater will be the pressure on the old understanding that underpinned the licence fee. And what are they going to do for content every day when they can't read out The Sun and The Times?


  1. What government would suggest a licence fee to pay for a free press? They have enough of a problem with the BBC, which (depending on your political stance) they basically run anyway. Without wishing to sound too negative, nothing is going to stop the future coming our way: news will be gathered by the BBC, by news organisations who don't have to make a profit (e.g. the Guardian), by ordinary people who happen to be there when it occurs, and by a small handful of really powerful brands (Daily Mail, Sun maybe, possibly the Telegraph). Everyone else will go bust. I am not saying this lightly, it is potentially a disaster, but you can have Digital Brtitains till you're blue in the face, nothing is going to change it.

  2. Anonymous6:15 am

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. If national papers fold, I imagine the BBC will simply up the overwhelming quota of content which doesn't consist of reading stuff out from the newspapers.

  4. Should have included this earlier - apologies, David.

    The point you make about newspaper content being available free on the web certainly chimes.

    A few months ago, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop was asked on BBC Radio 5 Live why his organ wasn't available in its entirety online. The gist of his reply was that no-one has come up with a business model for web publishing that comes anywhere near the profit margins of printing and selling. It's clear by now that online publishing has no such golden business model.

    And the Eye, for all its toilet paper feel and cheerily ramshackle approach to design, is still (to the best of my layman's knowledge) selling well. Good thing too, considering the sources of genuine investigative journalism will continue to dwindle in number.

  5. It sounds like you were implying there that most of our newspapers actually do more than cut and paste press releases and Reuters data.

    If papers are going bust now, imagine how few there would be if they actually did proper (non-celebrity hounding) journalism.

  6. Bless. The Guardian‘s only just noticed that once it loses its vast unofficial state subsidy (i.e. when public sector recruitment advertising is put online) it’s game over. But I’m sure everyone will be delighted to pay a new tax to subsidise George Monbiot and Zoe Williams. National treasures. How about lottery funding?