Thursday, July 19, 2012

Should government agencies or Ministers supply content to newspapers if it will end up paywalled?

Thirty years ago if you wanted to read the news, you bought a newspaper. A paper newspaper, with real money.

As a result all of a government's announcements - media releases, Ministerial statements, advertising and other content had a price tag by default.

You didn't get to see them if you didn't pay the paper's price (except if you browsed in-store - a practice news agents discouraged).

Over the last twenty years however, news has become freely available online. Go to any print publisher's masthead, online-only news service or agency website and you can read the releases, statements and even see the ads without paying a cent.

Clearly this has been good for governments, who can reach a wider audience with their content due to the lack of a 'paywall' barrier to consumption.

However with the major newspapers now considering paywalls, should government agencies be prepared to go back to the days of allowing commercial providers to charge money for the content they provide to newspaper proprietors for free?

This is a thorny question. On the surface it looks easy - it was OK before, it should be OK now. However we have a new generation of citizens who grew up with free news, who are less inclined to pay for news and therefore government is likely to struggle to reach them.

At the same time we have a phlethora of news sites, some will be paywalled but others won't. Agencies can now distribute releases, statements and even advertisements via their own websites, email lists, and social media channels.

So does government need to rely on traditional media to carry straight news? It is still appropriate for agencies to allow newsprint publishers to 'clip the ticket' for the content they release for free?

Should there be a requirement that Ministerial and agency content isn't hidden behind the paywall and remains part of the free content provided by news services? A traffic generator, but not a profit centre?

I don't have a ready answer to this.

I would expect the news publishers would be quite happy commercialising government content, as they have done in the past, as it gives them cheap content to boost their profits (which can, of course, be taxed).

I also expect that older public servants and politicians wouldn't even question the right of publishers to make money from government content, as it was done before.

However for younger people the situation may not be so black-and-white.

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