Untangling the Web: News shouldn’t be free – Part 2

In a news-obsessed country like Israel, the need for quality online journalism is obvious.

online news_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
online news_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
– Oscar Wilde
There are many options for monetizing the online news industry in Israel, including a communal pay model, a simultaneous industry decision with Anti-Trust Authority approval, and individual news organizations rolling out mixed models without coordination. A fourth option would be maintaining the status quo, but online journalism in its current state is not sustainable.
The Piano Media model discussed in detail in Part 1 – a communal paywall for online content providers – is one that could work in Israel. As the company’s CEO, Tomáš Bella, told The Jerusalem Post in that column, the system is best suited to a single-language population with no foreign competition, so JPost readers can exhale for now; clearly, English doesn’t qualify. However, Hebrew may be an ideal candidate. Israel is the only country with Hebrew media, and who are we kidding anyway? Israeli media leaves something to be desired at times, and could do with more regulation.
That said, there were some decent arguments brought up in response to Part 1 of this column.
The fact that Israeli media play a crucial role in hasbara – public diplomacy – for a state which often finds itself in PR crises, for example, is a valid point. Certainly in troubled times – such as directly after the 2010 flotilla affair, or during and after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip – media have a huge role to play in showing Israel in positive light, or uncovering common misconceptions. However, were a system of monetization to be launched which affected Israeli news in all languages, this would not need to change. Creative solutions such as metered pay models, whereby readers would only start getting charged from, say, 20 articles up like The New York Times model, could keep free access for such situations.
Quality journalism is the point here, not advocacy. After all, in a democracy journalists should be working to serve the interests of the public rather than the state.
Many talkbackers on Part 1 commented – or indeed threatened – that they would just read blogs instead if asked to pay for news. While bloggers and active social media users can certainly provide some information to a similar standard as the mainstream news media, it’s the details that count. Bloggers are invaluable to democratic values and freedom of speech; they help to promote marginalized opinions and influence public opinion. However, they are seldom trained, experienced journalists, and they often merely report what has been reported. That is to say, if there were no real reporters out there – no news wires, no interviews, no correspondents, no investigative journalism, then bloggers would have far less to say, and far less access to information.
Talkbackers also made a lot of noise about the suggestion that news outlets get together to make a decision – charges of market collusion, cartel, what-have-you were levied. Piano’s CEO, a former editor-in-chief of Slovakia’s biggest news portal and as such a man who can see both sides of the equation, doesn’t agree. In fact, he told the Post that a system like his, with a pro rata arrangement by which sites are rewarded for bringing in more users, actually encourages news outlets to compete against one another.
Apart from stimulating competition among Israeli media outlets, such a system would turn “the news” back into a bundle – like a newspaper or cable television subscription. And yes, not everyone pays for pay TV or print subscriptions – I never have. But this doesn’t negate the fact that many people do, and it indicates that many people would be willing to fork out the cash for such a service in the online sphere, assuming that it provides something extra and meets their needs.
While price is not the most important factor here, for the purpose of this sketch, let’s assume a nominal fee such as NIS 10 per week, NIS 30 per month or NIS 300 per year. Let’s assume that the price is affordable for the vast majority of the population, and that payment methods are simple and varied.
Picture a package which includes Ynet and all of its sections and subsections, as well as supplementary columns and features printed in the weekend edition of Yediot Aharonot, the entire Walla portal, an online restaurant portal such as Rest.co.il, popular sports site One, Israeli business news site Globes, Channel 2 franchisee Keshet’s mako site including all video content, Ma’ariv’s website nrg.co.il, and the online edition of Time Out Tel Aviv. For one weekly/monthly/annual payment, readers would have unlimited access to all of these sites.
Staying for now with the Piano example, the sites themselves could choose how much of their content they put behind the paywall. So while the business and sports sites may choose to keep everything behind the paywall, the “general” news sites such as Ynet and nrg could elect to keep their breaking news open to the public but make all of their feature, analysis and opinion pieces available to paid readers only. Though they might lose some income in this equation, it would be something of a calculated risk to maintain readership.
Now, this scenario assumes that a couple of major sites would have opted not to be involved – Haaretz and Channel 10, for example. Yes, these sites would likely see a jump in readership. However, the quality of those readers might not be ideal. That is to say, the average time-on-page, an important factor in impression-based advertising models, would likely drop, as the readers gained would be those that mainly skim over headlines and click through without reading full articles. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it would not be entirely to the detriment of the news sources signed up for the paywall, and anyway if the hard news was still free or at least partially free then the impact would not be as drastic.
So how would this help the industry apart from just pumping in funds? Well, the two can’t really be separated. The influx of money would have two main purposes – improving content quality and website redesign. By beefing up staff and wages, the quality of reporters and thus reporting would jump. A move toward a 21st-century site, with full multi-media packages and designs which aren’t restricted by heavy advertising, would help bring Israeli media up to current world standards.
To fully comprehend how such a move could work in this country, a proper understanding of the Israeli populous is needed. This is a country of news junkies, a country full of people who pause what they’re doing and turn up the news when the beeps sound on the hour without thinking about it, a people which relies on the media to guide them in times of conflict. On the flip side, Israeli media are often completely unreferenced and based on hearsay and borderline libelous claims. There is an extremely active opinion and commentary scene; on television for example, the nightly news broadcasts themselves are a combination of both the day’s bulletins as well as analysis and opinions on the big issues.
The need for quality online news media in Israel is obvious, and this is exactly why the industry must be held to higher standards. The reality is that a step towards regulation is required.
A communal paywall in cooperation with most of the major current affairs sites would give Israeli news outlets the opportunity to develop into a product tailored for Israelis, rather than just settling for the half-baked next step from television and newspapers. A likely result would not only be new sites, but new types of sites, new uses for the medium. More resources could be devoted to developing interactive elements tailored to this tiny and unique country. Coughing up the dough would be more than worth it in the end – the quality of the product would necessarily rise.
For the good of the industry, the big players would need to take a risk for something like this to work. Hard-hitting, ethical journalism needs an industry, and indeed a public, which values and supports it in order to produce the best product. Only time will tell whether, as in Slovakia and Slovenia, such a model is possible in Israel.
The idea of monetizing online news is not a popular one, as was made obvious by the flood of responses to my last column on the issue. The idea is controversial. Nonetheless, I would argue that those who would not consider paying even a nominal fee for quality media don’t actually value them at all, and would therefore not really lose out were any sort of across the board paywall system to be implemented.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post’s Internet desk manager.