The media world is racing towards a new paradigm that is both invigorating and disturbing. News is free.

On television, radio, the internet and, increasingly, in one of the 30 million free daily newspapers in 41 countries that are enveloping the world, news is now a commodity that people expect to get for nothing.

So rapidly is this happening that discussion is now turning to a radical concept that will add even further uncertainty to the growing turmoil affecting the economics of the world’s media and journalism – will all newspapers become free? For a detailed analysis of that proposition, read this assessment by former British newspaper editor Richard Addis in yesterday’s Guardian:

In 10 years’ time, could all newspapers be free? Not just London Lite and the London Paper but papers like the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph and even the FT and the New York Times. Absurd? Perhaps not as much as it first seems.

The barbarians have got as far as Pisa. The internet, after all, is here. It is huge. It is devouring everything in its path. Nearly all of it is free. Newspapers can launch websites and try to surf the wave; but doing so, they inexorably weaken their core business. There is just one way — as both Rupert Murdoch and Jonathan Rothermere know — that you can defend that core: make papers free as well.

All news is free. All newspapers are free. These sound like such a democratic, empowering concepts.

But they are concepts which raises a gnawing question: if the business model for news becomes a completely free model, will there be enough advertising revenue to pay for the vast resources currently deployed to comprehensively cover the news? And if there isn’t enough advertising revenue to pay for the hundreds of journalists employed by most large newspapers, what will happen to the quality of news and, more broadly, the quality of journalism?

Not only are these big questions with no definitive answers, they are questions to which the average consumer of free news probably has a simple response: who cares?

Free news rules, and perhaps, sooner than we think, free newspapers will rule as well.

Peter Fray

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