Paywalls shouldn’t really change anything

Posted on May 19, 2010


We tiptoe nervously into the BBC Radio Theatre keeping a careful eye on the loan figure sat behind the microphone at the other end of the room.

Was he rehearsing his lines or recording a link? I looked around for a red light or a green light or some kind of sign from the control room behind me. I couldn’t see one anywhere.

I placed the heavy camera bag gently on the floor just in case.

Myself and a colleague are there to video a recording of BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show.

This week’s edition recorded in front of a ‘live’ audience – surely a bonus they’re not ‘dead’ – focusses on the current media obsession. Can getting people to subscribe to online news services really work? And if it can will it change journalism forever?

It’s a strange event. The very people I know because of my media obsession – contributors Alan Rusbridger (Guardian Editor) and John Witherow (Times/Sunday Times Editor) – are the very people featuring in the debate. They are comparative celebrities. Like all debates there’s a perceived goody and baddy in this debate. Who will win?

Neither will win. Not because of any failing on the part of The Media Show. More that this discussion – like the perennially challenging, demoralising and ocassionally surreal discussion on the future of journalism – is one which favours journalists as well as being about them.

Aside from the Times announcing they’ll set up a paywall and a handful of regional publications quietly dropping their paywall plans however, little has actually happened yet in the UK. It will happen – June, in fact – but until it does, discussing whether it’s a good idea and what will happen to journalism as a trade amounts to crystal ball gazing.

Don’t get me wrong, that crystal ball gazing is still valuable. We’ll hang on every word for the beginning or the development of a story. We’ll look out for pointers as to the likelihood of paywalls succeeding. We’ll hope for insights amongst the predictions. Journalists need stories. There’s a story in everything. This event could be part of that story.

“It’s not level, Jon” says my colleague. We look at the spirit level on the tripod, screw my nose up and deny my embarrassment.

That’s when I remind myself where I am and what I’m doing. I’m here videoing an event. I’m required to set up a tripod, stick a camera on top of it, check the sound and make the colour balance is right.

I’m not a trained journalist. I’ve probably missed the boat for the College’s Journalism Trainee Scheme (and – I suspect – I’m unlikely to get on it myself through sheer force of personality). I haven’t officially worked as a journalist. I don’t have a press badge. I don’t feel like officially I can legitimately label myself a journalist. What I need is a right of passage.

And yet I work in that environment. Over the past 18 months I’ve learnt more about journalism and the people who figure highly in it than I ever knew before I started at the College of Journalism. Before I was obsessed with on-screen graphics, questionable pieces to camera and dodgy OOVs. Now I feel like I might just be able to survive in a news room so long as my responsibilities were writing a personal blog and not getting too many vox pops. I live and breathe it even if I haven’t got the years of experience some more seasoned professionals have.

Even so, the lack of clearly defined boundaries makes events like these ever so slightly weird.

I’m part of the machine producing the output. But I’m also attending an event hoping the briefing aspect of the debate will clarify a situation (sometimes reading stuff on the internet can be a draining affair). I’m working and I’m learning. The boundaries are at best blurred, or worst non-existent. Is it a busman’s holiday or a curiosity?

I step on to the stage and take up position in the presenter’s chair. I look back at the empty auditorium so my colleague can frame the shot and make sure everything’s ready. I tell her what I had for breakfast, savoring the moment.

Five years ago this was the dream. I wanted to sit behind a microphone and speak. I didn’t know what I’d say or what I’d be called upon to say. But I wanted to work in radio. Five years later that specific goal still hasn’t been achieved.

But is that necessarily a failing? No. Up close and relatively personal radio is what it is. One person sat behind a microphone reading a script. The words they say are considerably fewer than the perception the listener has in their mind. The presenter’s role in a programme is not to *be* the programme, more to keep it moving.

And those presenters are not there (and shouldn’t be) because they are presenters. More because of their work in other areas. They are the influencers branded so because others consider them influential. Presenting is a sideline. The core is their journalism, or their writing or whatever their creative urges drive them to produce.

And they’ve been branded influential because of the other creative or journalistic work they do. The presenting job is just a gig – and should be seen as such.

But does that minor-epiphany lessen the goal or make it seem further out of reach? Not really.

There are now significantly more ways more of us can experiment with content creation be it journalism, fiction, drama or entertainment. Sure, that experimentation may go unpaid – if I had to do unpaid work experience after I graduated in order to get a job then I don’t see why present day journalism graduates shouldn’t (yes, I know that’s hardline) – but the bar is now just that little bit higher.

And how will paywalls change that? If they work then paywalls will surely create a more competitive market for new and existing practitioners. And if they don’t, those of us keen to pursue media goals might as well hang on to that competitive streak just to make the stuff consumers get for ‘free’ online is the very best in the world.

Because you never know what might just happen. That microphone may not be quite so out of reach.