And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

A £2-a-month levy on broadband could be the worst idea for journalism ever

Yesterday evening the Guardian (full disclosure: my employer) published an article by the eminent investigative journalist David Leigh, titled “A £2-a-month levy on broadband could save our newspapers”. Leigh, a veteran report who worked (amongst other things) on the Wikileaks data and the Jonathan Aitken investigation, outlines his credentials immediately with his opening gambit around “surviv[ing] more than 40 years at the coalface of British journalism”.

I’ve written here before about the seeming insistence of the “old guard” of print journalism that the “internet is killing journalism”, so I was intrigued to hear Leigh’s thoughts on the matter. I knew as soon as I read the words “conventional wisdom” that Leigh’s thoughts on the future of print were probably going to differ from mine.

Leigh’s argument, in essence, is that people won’t pay for journalism when they can get it for free from the likes of the BBC. He suggests that since they’re already paying for their internet connection, why not add on £2 a month extra to cover the losses of print newspapers, and distribute this pot amongst newspapers “according to their share of UK online readership”.

I had to stop and re-read his argument again to make sure I’d understood it properly. This was staggering. The man honestly believes that this “solution” would a) actually work and b) would appeal to anybody (except, presumably, investigative journalists worried about their job security). Of course, Leigh’s real argument here is that internet journalism hasn’t found a funding model yet, so therefore, er, we need to artificially keep print alive to make sure we still get quality investigative reporting.

There’s one aspect of this argument which I can’t work out: is Leigh saying that the money raised by this levy would then specifically fund print newspapers, or would it just fund the news company in general? If it’s the former, then the idea is laughable: why would any typical broadband user agree to a large (percentage-wise) increase in their monthly bill, simply to sustain something they weren’t buying anyway? It’s like suggesting I should pay Netflix a little extra each month to help subsidise the going-out-of-business video shop down the road. Now of course, the loss of home video stores wouldn’t be a “disaster for democracy” as Leigh points out, but that’s another problem.

Journalism is not (just) newspaper journalism. The decline of print is not the decline of journalism. Leigh argues that “the lean pickings from web advertising on a free newspaper site will only pay for a fraction of the high-quality investigative journalism that commercial newspapers generate”. This seems particularly short-sighted: in a future media landscape without print (and therefore print advertising), surely web advertising would generate more money by default? Similarly, in a commercial world where the funds for paying for prohibitively expensive print centres and physical distribution were now free, perhaps more money to fund journalism could be found?

There are plenty of online-only news companies turning a profit and paying their journalists. Some of them even do investigations. Without the legacy of print to pay for (and sometimes without even the expense of physical headquarters), costs can be lowered and more funds put into the content itself. In Leigh’s world, though, the only companies to benefit from this levy would be, er, newspapers as defined in 1994. It seems particularly witless to set up a funding model which divvies up the pot of cash based on internet-based access rates, but limits the availability of said handouts to pre-internet companies. Similarly, why choose to distribute the money based on digital access? The Independent, arguably amongst the most at-risk of the UK national newspapers, suffers from both a low print readership and a low online userbase, too. Surely it needs the support of Leigh’s levy more than, say, the Guardian, whose online readership is famously vast. It’s almost as if Leigh has just arbitrarily invented a set of criteria that will protect his role, specifically.

I agree with Leigh that good journalism is crucially important to society and should be preserved. This doesn’t mean, though, that we keep print alive in a zombie state, on a life-support machine while others around it flourish with life. If print is dying, let it die. The economic landscape doesn’t exist in a vacuum: if print is gone then advertisers will need new sources of page space and existing digital ad slots will become more valuable and lucrative. That’s not to suggest that killing off print will magically infuse online ads with dollars, but that throwing money at something already in decline won’t magically rescue it either.

It takes a kind of breathtaking arrogance to proclaim you’ve found “a perfectly easy way to rescue newspapers, ensure media plurality, and monetise the web”. These solutions aren’t meant to be “perfectly easy”. Look at the music industry. Could you imagine if they noticed the amount of people consuming music online for free and insisted that your broadband bill be increased to account for lost sales? Like it or not, that industry has had to update itself and understand the newcomers like Spotify, offering free access to music and distributing advertising revenue back to the record labels. Or indeed, look at bands cutting out the middleman and distributing directly to fans. This is the society we’re living in today and we’re better off for it.

Some journalists can be so precious about mediums that they become blinkered to all others. If print is dying, let it die. Journalism isn’t. I agree we need new and imaginative ways to fund journalism, but the answer to that isn’t to force people to prop up the outgoing model on an imposed tax.