Katharine Viner, deputy editor of The Guardian and launch editor of its Australian offshoot, delivered the prestigious A.N. Smith Lecture in Journalism at the University of Melbourne last night. Viner’s speech was a thoughtful take on journalism in the internet age. Few who have embraced the digital era would disagree that journalists should be more transparent, more accountable and engage more with their readers.
But the question of how to pay for this new, improved journalism got little attention. The Guardian lost a whopping 31 million pounds last year and has posted a loss for the past nine years — a situation only made possible through cross-subsidisation from used car magazine Auto Trader. Although that money won’t last forever, The Guardian has so far refused to put up a paywall on its extremely successful website.
While Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recently said his paper is not the “Taliban of Free”, Viner struck a more fundamentalist tone last night:
“[J]ournalistically, paywalls are utterly antithetical to the open web. A paywalled website is just print in another form, making collaboration with the people formerly known as the audience much more difficult. You can’t take advantage of the benefits of the open web if you’re hidden away.”
We’ve never hidden our light under a bushel. Our subscriptions model, a community of invested readers, has engendered a loyalty and a participatory spirit other publications long for. And it’s allowed us to continually invest in editorial resources.
But then, we would say that, wouldn’t we. The New York Times, which has maintained its enormous global website traffic while asking regular readers to pay, and Fairfax, which has a metered paywall and is encouraging readers to scour politicians’ expense claims, might say the same thing.
The point here is one of sustainability. Viner finished her lecture by saying modern journalism must be a combination of the new and the old — of the phone and Twitter; of gut instinct and data; of professional journalists and amateur bloggers.
We’d add another — admittedly self-serving — point. Philanthropic journalism and public broadcasting have an important role to play, but any future for journalism that doesn’t include sustainable business models isn’t a future at all.