Bloggers have been pecking at NBR publisher Barry Colman after his very public swipe at online media. Thing is, in many ways he's right.

My, but Barry Colman has put a cat amongst the online pigeons. The owner of the National Business Review has decided to charge a subscription fee for "the best news stories, scoops and commentary" on the paper's website – roughly 20 percent of NBR's online content. In doing so he took a swipe at bloggers, many of whom have bridled at his criticism. Thing is, Colman has a point.

Colman wrote an open letter to readers on Friday saying that it was "crazy" for newspapers to pay "enormous costs" gathering news only to give it away for free online. He didn't want to start "slashing newsroom numbers" as has happened at the Fairfax and APN papers, so was going to start charging online.

More like a loaf of bread than a cat, Colman's open letter to readers has been picked over pretty thoroughly online. If you want to consider the business risk Colman's taking check out Bernard Hickey's reply or Rusell Brown's commentary. Those guys know as much about web publishing as just about anyone in this country. Bernard indulges in a little nonsense about blogging being "intensely democratic... the better the content, the bigger the audience" (NB: there's nothing magical about blogging that somehow makes brands, marketing, controversey etc irrelevant), but otherwise they offer some wise observations and suspect that Colman's made a strategic error. Russell makes the very telling point that Colman is trying to make money out of commentary – the very thing the web has more than enough of. He may do better following the old dictum that opinions are two-a-penny but facts are golden, and charge accordingly.

The core question Colman's experiment will answer, I guess, is whether people will pay for something when they can get something similar elsewhere. Why pay for the NBR when you can get Herald Business, BusinessDay, and business papers from around the world free online?

On the business front I bow to both Bernard and Russell, who have leveraged their websites into the basis of a decent living. But neither live as well as Colman and I suspect he'll remain a Rich Lister while the rest of us muddle along in comparative poverty with our websites and our brave new media models.

The often over-looked fact is that newspapers in this country are still turning nice wee profit. Sure, the numbers aren't what they were and probably can't carry the weight of a corporate structure the way they used to, but they're still making a bucketload more money than any news website. Bernard has done a remarkable job with interest.co.nz and his commandments offer a way to make a reasonable living off a website (assuming you write about a specialist area such as finance and can data mine as he does. For those of us in current affairs, his model doesn't work). But while he's figured out how to make a small profit from free business news, he doesn't know how to rescue the news business as a whole. No-one does.

The unfortunate truth underneath all this is that when it comes to the journalism, Colman is right to be concerned. You can call him a dinosaur and talk about new business models until you're blue in the face, but the fact is that newsrooms in this country are being decimated and no-one knows how to stop the downward spiral. The spin doctors are winning, most bloggers don't have access to the decision makers, and much web content has no respect for balance. Tick, tick, and tick. Colman's bang on, and he's fighting back.

Where Colman got bloggers really hot under the collar was with this comment:

"... the [free online news]model has spawned a huge band of amateur, untrained, unqualified bloggers who have swarmed over the internet pouring out columns of unsubstantiated “facts” and hysterical opinion."

Obviously he's wrong to ignore the expert blogging that is emerging in this country. Everyone on Pundit, for example, is an expert in their own right. Is David Lewis an "amateur"? Is Andrew Geddis "unqualified"? Is Claire Browning "untrained"? Colman would thank his lucky stars if he had journalists of the calibre of Jane Young, David Beatson, David Young, Keith Ovenden, Nicky Hager, Toby Manhire and Eleanor Black in his newsroom.

Come on, Barry, spend a little more time online. Anyone who loves journalism should relish the new voices – many of them expert – that the web has drawn into the public square.

And frankly, a newspaper with the partisan track record of the NBR – remember the Hubbard mayoral campaign when they followed him to church? – has some nerve criticising others for "biased and inaccurate reporting".

On the other hand, Colman is undeniably right. There are thousands of people blogging who don't know what they're talking about, who give momentum to conspiracy and hearsay and who simply rant in public because technology has saved them the trip to Speakers' Corner in London. Unsurprisingly, those most offended by Colman's remarks are those who best fit his description.

I'll defend Pundit and the work we do here without qualm, and I'll argue with a passion that we are an important supplement to traditional media. Yet the fact remains that blogs are in no position to replace it. Blogs are a parasite slowly killing the host, and if we consume traditional media before someone finds a sustainable model for mass news, we'll all suffer.

For now, no-one has the answer. Bernard and his model ain't it. Rupert Murdoch's struggling for ideas. And Colman, well, I think he's guessing as well.

But let's show a little respect, eh? And let's not get over-excited by the newness of the web.

We shouldn't overlook the fact that newspapers, for example, have been tried and tested time and again for decades. They have stood up to advertisers and governments and even readers time and again; have web publishers shown such courage yet? One of the things that concerns me about web media is that the ethical foundations are weak. The wall between news and commerce, so carefully erected by the newspaper giants, is only a few bricks high at most websites.

Sometimes the web people get so excited by the new that they forget that traditional media still does the job better than anyone – who breaks by far the majority of news stories, employs the most journalists and provides more New Zealanders with their daily news? It's not bloggers. Or as I've put it elsewhere:

Some bloggers do break some stories. But few are full-time professionals spending their working lives nurturing and nagging sources, gathering facts, analyzing trends; that is, the hard work of news.

Without traditional media there would simply be less news, and as a result a weaker democracy and a less informed population. And no-one wants that.

Comments (9)

by stuart munro on July 22, 2009
stuart munro

I doubt in fact that bloggers intend the destruction of conventional media, but it must be remembered that the structure of newspapers favours large organisations, and their desire to court advertising tends to slant expressed opinion to the right.

As news organisations shrink, the ability of reporters to keep worthy material in public sight is diminished. This favours the sporadic and issue driven behaviour of bloggers.

Mr Colman's decision is neither inspired nor disasterous. The New York Times charged for premium content for two years, now it has abandoned the policy. The future of reportage is still undecided, and I'd suggest that it will remain undecided for some years.

by Tim Watkin on July 22, 2009
Tim Watkin

I agree Stuart. Publishers will try a range of options - the tip jar (where readers set up accounts and make donations if they think a story if worthy) and sponsored access (where a company pays a supposed subscription fee on the readers' behalf and gets an ad stating as such, thereby earning the readers' goodwill) are just a couple. But who knows where it will end?

The problem with that uncertainty is that in the meantime there is less verified news and more comment (some of which is brilliant, some of which is dross).

by DeepRed on July 22, 2009
DeepRed

"Publishers will try a range of options - the tip jar (where readers set up accounts and make donations if they think a story if worthy) and sponsored access (where a company pays a supposed subscription fee on the readers' behalf and gets an ad stating as such, thereby earning the readers' goodwill) are just a couple. But who knows where it will end?"

I think that's how citizen journalism works at the moment.

by stuart munro on July 22, 2009
stuart munro

There are of course a couple of issues beyond the money. Professional journalists are to some degree compelled to maintain relationships with political actors, which may make them less critical than some of the actions demand.

And pressure to produce copy, together with the increasing profesionalism of PR, can produce some very poor news. Most NZ newspapers for instance, published the unsubstatiated rumour that Sadaam Hussein had shipped his NBC weapons out of Iraq on two freighters and had them cruising in circles around the Indian ocean. A remarkable move this would have been, magically avoiding the naval blockade Operation Enduring Freedom, and somehow circumventing the very restricted port facilities Iraq enjoys, a major factor in its interest in Kuwait.

But I hope that the increased public participation in news will see a rise in the gravitas of both professional and amateur reporting. It would be nice to see better use of what Alistair Cooke described as the control of suspense too. Too many news stories kill interest in the first paragraph, for all that they may be efficient information providers.

by Tim Watkin on July 22, 2009
Tim Watkin

Quite right Matthew. I didn't mean to speak entirely in the future tense. It is happening now with citizen journalism - and the sponsored access is even being done on a professional site like Salon. So it's starting to cross over, and I suspect that will continue to spread into the websites of trad. media.

There are probably plenty of other ideas being tried as well... I just hope a few work! When I spoke to the ex-CEO of Salon a year or two ago it was finally making money after many years of losses. Only hope they're still making it work...

by Tim Watkin on July 22, 2009
Tim Watkin

Stuart,

A) Nz will always be hostage to overseas media on overseas stories. We just don't have the budgets for more than a handful of foreign correspondents. (Sadly, many media who used to have a bunch of foreign bureaux don't have the budgets now either). But we're in the hands of the subs at Reuters and AP for the Saddam-type stories, and always have been.

B) I hope you're right about the gravitas, but I fear the opposite. The more amateur reporting, the fewer collective standards will hold true. Journos used to have a passing knowledge of the journo union's list of ethics. I doubt many even know they exist now; bloggers certainly don't. Take away the civilising influence of it being a profession - or at least a craft you could be proud of - and it becomes a free-for-all with no rules.

C) Maintenance of relationships. Yep, a real issue. But the reason I think Bernard's wrong about the special democracy of the web applies here too. My point is, bloggers who want to do more than rant about what they saw on the front page this morning come across the same issues journalists do. They need to promote their work, they need to market their websites, they need access to decision makers... We want more of these bloggers - those who go to a range of sources and to decision makers - rather than the ranters. But the things that compromise journalists will compromise them as well... some will make deals, some won't. Some will be pressured by advertisers, some won't. In the end, for all the fuss about it being new media, it's still the same old work with the same old traps.

by stuart munro on July 23, 2009
stuart munro

While I appreciate that journalism has grown increasingly difficult,

"we're in the hands of the subs at Reuters and AP for the Saddam-type stories, and always have been." cannot wash. If an ordinary member of the public such as myself can recognize the transparent falsity of such a story, a professional journalist, steeped in current events, should be able to do better.

Besides, is there not a story in such frauds? Who perpetrated that fiction, and to what end? I think we have another similar one in the Syrian reactor bombed by Israel last year. Despite no ground presence to confirm so much as the existence of radioactive material, the eagle-eyed pilots were supposedly able to detect a North Korean influence in the reactor design.

Some North Koreans are indeed very bad fellows, but their ability to travel freely throughout the world is not limitless, and their mastery of nuclear material is far from complete. For a fighter pilot presumably unfamiliar with the finer points of North Korean nuclear architecture to tell so much from a fleeting glimpse of a fairly nondescript bombsite strains the limits of credibility to breaking point. But back tracking that story might lead to some quite interesting places.

by Tim Watkin on July 23, 2009
Tim Watkin

Sure Stuart, I agree that just as stories can be followed up, so should stories that turn out to be false. Several American publications have gone to great lengths to do just that, most notably the NYT. With stories such as the Syrian reactor, it can be very hard to prove or disprove such things. I'm assuming Syrian military and power sites are strictly guarded for a start!

Fair play that editors here have to remain sceptical when unlikely stories appear from their regular suppliers. But if they're coming from several usually reliable sources, what reason do you have to doubt. You say you could spot a "transparent falsity", but unlikely and remarkable stories come in every day – Michael Jackson dead? South Ossetia invaded? A black president? Michael Owen signing for United? Bad examples all, but you get my drift. A lot of things could seem more likely false than true at first blush so you have to trust your sources to some extent...

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