Blog Post

Guardian’s Rusbridger Urges Against Industry-Wide Paywalls

It’s not the Berlin Wall and Rupert Murdoch heads News Corp (NYSE: NWS). not the USSR, but Alan Rusbridger’s speech on the future of journalism Monday evokes Ronald Reagan’s exhortation “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The Guardian editor-in-chief used the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp Lecture to deliver a counterpoint to Murdoch’s plans to put News Corp.’s online news properties behind some kind of paywall — and his repeat urgings that the rest of the news industry follow suit. Rusbridger reminded listeners that the Murdoch who now embraces paywalls is the same “brave, radical proprietor” who favored “reach before revenue” when he “ruthlessly” undersold his papers or has backed free models.

Rusbridger has made no secret of his belief that open access equals reach equals influence — as he illustrated during the talk, Guardian has gone from selling only 650 copies outside the UK in 1956 to one of the top English-speaking news sites globally — so he isn’t breaking major ground. And he isn’t completely arguing against paywalls as much as the notion that they can work across the industry. (Conversely, some argue that online news paywalls can only work if everyone does it.) But, using Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.’s admission that charging for frequent access to is a “bet,” Rusbridger suggests both men are playing a “hunch.”

He adds: “To put it another way, it may be right for the Times of London and New York, but not for everyone. It may be right at some point for everybody in the future, but not yet. There is probably general agreement that we may all want to charge for specialist, highly-targeted, hard-to-replicate content. It’s the ‘universal’ bit that is uncertain.” Rusbridger draws a different line for mobile. The Guardian already has one of the top paid iPhone news apps, selling 70,000 subscriptions at £2.39 the first month. “It’s one clue to the future, not an epiphany.”

Rusbridger’s multi-layered message is best read intact and I urge anyone who is interested in the subject to do just that. (You can also watch a video interview with Rusbridger. Oddly for all the talk of an open web, embedding isn’t allowed.) Some excerpts:

— “If you erect a universal pay wall around your content then it follows you are turning away from a world of openly shared content. Again, there may be sound business reasons for doing this, but editorially it is about the most fundamental statement anyone could make about how newspapers see themselves in relation to the newly-shaped world.”

— “There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started