Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The price of quality news

The Daily Telegraph laments the decline of quality journalism, but paid-for content is no guarantee.

Much of this column for the past three years has been about how the internet is changing our lives, often for the better, and sometimes for worse. So it was kind of The Daily Telegraph's website to publish a list of 50 things it thinks the web is killing.

To be fair, it isn't what you might expect.  The death of the annual ring-round for insurance quotes, staggered film releases and, oddly, dogging, are held up as positives; but the list also features one item that is currently taxing the intellects of media-owners across the planet.  

Number 18, ‘authoritative reference works' bemoans the fact that, as the Telegraph puts it, ‘we still crave reliable information, but generally aren't willing to pay for it'.

As Rupert Murdoch said last month: ‘Quality journalism is not cheap... the digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels, but it has not made content free. We intend to charge for all our news websites.'

The underlying thesis is that journalism you pay for is better than journalism you get for free. If it wasn't, surely there would be no reason to pay?

A pointed demonstration of this comes when the (free) website's list gets to number 36: ‘Mr Alifi's Dignity'. Observing that, 20 years ago, if you were a Sudanese man forced to marry a goat after having sex with it, the story would have been unlikely to spread beyond your immediate vicinity, the Telegraph notes that Mr Alifi's indis­cretion became one of the first viral news stories to spread across the globe.

All very well, and interesting enough.  However, as regular readers of the Sudan Tribune will know - if the recent post strikes have not disrupted delivery of their paper too badly - it was not Mr Alifi's indiscre­tion at all. Far from being the goat-botherer, he was the aggrieved party - although perhaps not as aggrieved as the animal itself.  

The owner and keeper of the goat, Mr Alifi was woken in the night by noises outside. On rushing out to investigate the disturbance, he discovered a certain Mr Tombe having what he described as ‘an intimate relation' with his animal.

Mr Alifi swiftly captured and tied up the offender, then called the village elders. They decided that, rather than reporting the matter to the police, Mr Tombe should pay a dowry, as he had ‘used the goat as his wife'.

All was apparently resolved, until the Telegraph heaped a false attribution onto the already-embarrassed Mr Alifi.

There is no contesting that quality journalism is not cheap, but if the reliability of information is a measure of its quality, as the Telegraph points out, people are generally unwilling to pay for it. And, regrettably, despite employing plenty of top journal­ists, even the Tele­graph can still get it wrong.

The journalist responsible has now transparently corrected the error, leaving in place the original - but the reality is that paying for content offers consumers no guarantee of its quality. If it wasn't difficult enough already, newspapers don't only have to compete with other newspapers' free online offerings, they also have to contend with the likes of the BBC, Talksport.net, Yahoo! and MSN.

Furthermore, their competitive set is not bounded by geography. I can as easily read the Los Angeles Times as the Telegraph, a fact that the Guardian has exploited to its benefit as it has expanded online into the US.

It is unknown what plans the Sudan Tribune has for charging for content, but the truth is, Murdoch's ambition that all newspapers will begin to charge will not be enough on its own, even if it is achievable.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on ‘50 things that are being killed by the internet'

  • ‘The art of polite disagree­ment' tops the list, with ‘inane spats' on YouTube cited as one of the premier offenders.
  • US political celebrity Sarah Palin is the first individual on the list. The fourth-place entry for the former vice-president­ial hopeful and Alaskan gov­ernor tactfully cites her ‘uncomfort­able relationship with the web'.
  • The ‘myth of cat intelligence' has been punctured, if it ever existed, coming in at ninth place. The Telegraph claims that ‘lolcats', comic­ally-captioned photographs of the animals, are to blame.
  • The list includes past tech­nological advances that are now being outstripped, lam­enting the loss of ‘watching TV together' (17), ‘reading telegrams at wed­dings' (23) and ‘knowing phone numbers by heart' (27).
  • ‘Respect for doctors and other prof­essionals' (28) has reportedly plummeted now that patients can look up symptoms and treatments online for themselves.
  • Poignantly, in last place is ‘your lunch break'.