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The Day the Paywall (sort of) went up

May 25, 2010

If I am one, I’m a crap journalist.

There are plenty of others who spend considerably more time carrying out in-depth research before plugging themselves into their laptops, narrowing their eyes and typing like billio.

I’m more your anecdotal kind. Soaking up seemingly unimportant things around me, mentally tagging them in my head before hitting the Tube platform and thinking to myself ‘yep, there’s just a blog post in that’

So it is today.

The paywall thing has been rumbling on for a few months now. I’ve written elsewhere how it has the fundamental elements a journalist depends on: goodies and baddies.

BBC Radio 4’s Media Show even personified that debate sitting the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger on one side of a small table opposite the Times editor John Witherow. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, although it did set out the paywall rug for the late Spring/early Summer media picnic to follow.

This morning I pick up a tweet from a colleague at the BBC College of Journalism. I’m going through a phase at the moment where anyone saying anything on Twitter is liable to bring me out in hives regardless of what they say. I go through these phases. I have terrible mood swings. Such a tendency isn’t good for a journalist, wannabee or otherwise.

I follow the link to the new Times website homepage – it’s been released to give users a flavour of the new site ahead of the paywall thing being implemented.

“Oooh, that looks nice” I say out loud to one of my cats as I slurp on my instant coffee and admire the redesign. “Look at that tasty font. Looks like a proper newspaper.”

I click on the headline to read the Times’ lead. Will the content page be the same layout as the homepage or will I discover evidence of a cynical online production team? Will I hear somewhere in the distance a project manager saying to a website editor, “We only need to redesign the homepage – they won’t care when they get to the story itself.”

Only I don’t. Because I can’t get to the story itself. A pop-up keeps popping up. I’m being invited to sign-up for free ahead of the rush – the Times Plus thing. To get a taste of the rest of the site for free before the charging starts. (It’s like how things could be in the future, I now realise.) I’m sure there must be a mistake so I reload the page again. The same thing happens. I go back to the tweet and follow it again. Exactly the same thing happens.

Slowly, reality dawns. I drain the rest of my mug, raise my eyebrows in the direction of my oblivious cat and consider sighing with weary resignation as I stare at the future somewhere in the middle-distance.

Rule no.1, I think to myself. When this paywall system really does fire up, must make a point of not tweeting a link to anything behind a paywall. If any of the people I follow do, it’s three strikes and then they’re out. If it’s good enough for the Digital Economy Act, it’s good enough for me.

Actually, there is only one rule. I’m distracted by my partner who stands at the door with his car key, waiting to take me to the train station. “Finished twatting? I’m ready to go now.”

I point out what the Times have done.

“Oh,” he says before pointing out that from a user experience point of view the idea of actually signing up (even if it is for free) is a barrier. If they were asking for credit card details that would feel like even more of a barrier. Strange given that my credit card is usually in my bag and the evidence of both my credit card bills suggests I’ve never had a problem retrieving it before, but I take his point. Something just clicks. It feels like a real pain in the arse to have to sign-up to something else.

£1 a day. £2 a week. That seems like such a lot of money. It’s the beginning of the end. The sunshine will soon be hidden behind the clouds. Life will turn into something pitiful. Freedoms will be curtailed. And we’ll be paying for our news.

A brief car journey and a heated discussion about whether we really need the composting bin the council has just delivered and I’m walking at speed up tunnel to the station platform, stopping momentarily at the newspaper stand in the ticket hall. It’s old news. It’s dirty news. I haven’t got time. If it’s not already, it will be out of date by the time I get to work. Forget it. But as I pass, I remember the last time I bought a copy of a broadsheet. Wasn’t it about a £1? Didn’t it have loads of crap in it I quite liked the idea of me reading but never had the time nor the energy to? How different was paying a £1 online? Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. We’re not really being forced to pay for news. We pay for news anyway – the BBC’s news is already paid for up front – so maybe the Times paywall isn’t the beginning of the end after all.

Oh my God, I’m thinking to myself. What the hell has happened to me? Am I in part supporting Rupert Murdoch’s machine? Am I in fact in the wrong organisation? Years spent longing to work for the BBC with all subscribing to its values and actually I’m a Rupert Murdoch boy on the quiet. That’s like having to tell your parents that contrary to what they were thinking, breasts just aren’t your ‘thang’. Surely. Surely I’ve made a mistake.

I’m in a bit of a state by the time I reach Waterloo East. Maybe I am a member of that audience Rupert Murdoch is looking to reeducate. Maybe I am one of those people who has come to expect to get everything for free. Maybe I need to take a long hard look at myself. Reconsider. Recalibrate. This doesn’t mean I’m working for the wrong organisation. Maybe I just need to be a bit more open-minded.

And then I descend to the tube platform on the recently refurbished escalator at Southwark Station. There, occupying one wall before the second escalator is a series of iPads. I look at the adverts. I look at the man with his legs crossed, relaxing. That could be me. I don’t want an iPad really. I don’t need one. But that could be me.

And look, he’s pointing at the Guardian website on the iPad. It’s looks as strange on the iPad as the Berliner version of the print edition did when it was introduced. It looks weird. Arresting yet right at the same time, almost like I can’t believe we haven’t done this before.

Then I think about the launch date. 28 May.

Then I think about the Times newspaper’s redesign and how it will look on an iPad.

Then I think that maybe paying £1 a day isn’t really that much different from buying it from the newsagent.

And then I realise. To do that I’ll have to fork out £500 for a sodding iPad plus a data bundle so I can read the newspapers on my way into work – assuming I’m not organised enough to get it all downloaded before I leave the house. (I can barely organise my time to make sandwiches in the morning.)

That’s when I realise that the Times paywall isn’t just about reeducating a generation, redefining the rules of the internet or necessarily about investing money back into quality journalism.

It might be all of these things. Who knows.

But first and foremost this is about one hand washing the other. Two – or maybe three – media giants riding on each other’s coat tails.

Suddenly ignorance is a considerably more attractive option. Because as grumpy a nearly-middle-aged man as I am, I am not about to commit even more money I haven’t got to a device I don’t need just because I’m swayed by how lovely a redesigned website will look on that new device.

Check back here in future weeks for a complete turn around in my opinion. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

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From → Media

2 Comments
  1. cyberguycalif permalink

    Maybe the Guardian would look better of the iPad was turned the other way. Didn’t I see and ad that you could turn it and the content turns with it? Or am I dreaming that.

    Doesn’t sound like people in the U.K. like Rupert Murdoch any more then the people in the U.S. do.

    Some online newspapers here are annoying also. They let you look at the headlines and read maybe a few sentences and when you click to read the full story, the box comes up saying you have to be a member. Very annoying.

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