Much has been written about the difficulties traditional media are having in monetising their news content online, with Adrian Weckler’s piece in last Sunday’s Sunday Business Post adding a journalist’s thoughts on paid content.  Rupert Murdoch has been keen to push the debate by announcing an end to free news throughout his media empire.  However, even the casual internet user will know that the genie of free news cannot be put back into the bottle, creating a dilemma with far reaching implications.

It is innocent for Murdoch to believe that his omnipresent media interests can hold the spread of news information online. If Murdoch’s empire closes shop on its free news then internet users will turn to other sources such as blogs and Twitter for their news.  As it stands the citizen journalist has been trouncing traditional media in terms of breaking news as the recent Luas crash on O’Connell Street demonstrated.  News, imagery and updates from witnesses spread on Twitter for 45 minutes until a news website had covered the crash.

Where traditional media will continue to hold relevance is in analysis and investigation.  However these alone are not the only reasons for people to buy a newspaper, and with many blogs offering similar functions at a lower quality (but for no cost) there is an uphill challenge to be met.

If the media is to fragment to amateurs and others who may be serving agendas, and traditional press sources are destroyed, then there is a very real threat to freedom.  As PR practitioners we need the media to be objective or the objective validity of our work is also threatened.  PR is only worthwhile if it informs objective commentators and if objective commentators disappear or fragment then PR could be on the ropes.

We all have a vested interest in the survival of professional journalism and we believe that there is another model that the newspaper and broadcast industries should examine so that the freedom a free press guards for us is not destroyed.

Learn from the Music Industry

We are fully aware of the irony of citing an example from an industry suffering intensely from the proliferation of free online content and their own short-sighted manner of adapting to the situation.  However, nearly one hundred years ago the recorded music industry handled its first big test with aplomb.  With the development of radio the industry was faced with the threat of stations freely broadcasting music to the masses.

Using pre-existing organisations and with the support of legislation on copyright, the industry successfully set up a system whereby broadcasters would pay a license to the collection agency and submit information on what music was played and how often.  License fees are then paid to musicians and composers through a collection agency in proportion to the amount of times they were played and to how many people.

This system has been in place for decades and forms a substantial part of revenue generated in the music industry.  There is a lesson here that the music industry has forgotten that can be re-learnt by traditional media.

An ISP Collected Licence for Online News Content

Paying annual subscriptions via credit card is a proven failure.  Having readers reach for the card for individual pieces of news is even less likely to succeed.  Imagine if you had to  clock in your payment details every time the radio announced they were about to play a song?

We propose the industry examines a relationship whereby an ISP is contracted to collect negotiated fees as an embedded cost in their charge to customers.  Existing royalty companies could then collect this fee and apportion it to news organisations on the independently audited ratio of the amount of views they are receiving.

This presents a number of obstacles that we will attempt to address though we caution that this is not a fully formed solution, just a suggestion that could develop into a model that can reward professional journalism without alienating a willing readership.

ISPs as Collectors

The only guaranteed point of revenue collection on the web are Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  If we pay anyone for any of the online content we receive, it is them.  They are a natural agent for collecting this proposed license fee.

But why would ISPs become involved?  There are two motivators.  At the very least a fee can be offered to ISPs for collecting the tariff.  If the entire print and broadcast media agree on a license then it would be quite easy for websites to detect a user’s ISP.  Subscribers to an ISP that is not participating can be easily detected from the user’s own unique IP address and thus be denied access.

Given the traffic online news sites do receive it would not be in any ISP’s interest to be left out of the agreement and given the offer of a suitably agreeable commission, doubly so.

Auditing

It should be possible to both audit the traffic received from various ISPs on both the media outlet’s own site and also through an independent auditor.  In this way there would be a double-lock that does not exist in the music industry to ensure that fees are apportioned fairly.

Drawbacks

A tremendous amount of co-operation would be required to bring this about across both industries.  However given the benefits to ISPs, and the prospective of generating new revenue streams by pursuing the idea with other creative industries, there should be enough to benefit the industry to consider the proposal seriously.

A technological drawback would be the use of proxies to circumvent licensing however this is an issue that in itself is not insurmountable but does mean that for the idea to be truly effective, it should be internationalised immediately.

Can the Press be Saved?

More than ever we need a professional journalistic body to hold to account governments, unions and bodies corporate.  With so much information there is a need for the questioning and trusted independent source to prevent the person with an artificially large internet footprint becoming a modern day Goebbels.

Pay walls failed before and the internet free news genie is long out of the lamp.  Our solution is designed to stimulate a debate.  We hope that the debate leads to sustainable professional journalism and quality news for all.