Sunday, 27 November 2011

Content is free

Last week, people from The Guardian revamped the sport section of their website and officially launched The Guardian Sport Network. According to the blurb, they’ve “partnered with a range of sites to diversify [their] content and promote an open model of journalism.” This means they’ve identified some of their favourite amateur bloggers, and will be running their contributions on The Guardian website alongside articles  commissioned  from their professional, paid staff and freelances.

For the casual reader, it’s a win-win situation. The Guardian is handpicking  contributors, thus ensuring a degree of quality, and because they’re getting more content at no extra cost, there’s more chance The Guardian website can stay free for longer. Since its launch, I’ve read interesting, thought-provoking, well-researched articles about the decline of FC Porto, the lack of team harmony at Paris Saint-Germain and the race for the title in the top division of Brazil – all subjects unlikely to be published in a national newspaper due to their lack of British appeal. However, there’s a strong feeling that The Guardian is treating its new contributors unfairly; if their work is of a sufficient standard to make it onto the website of a national newspaper, surely they deserve remuneration.

Of course, The Guardian’s argument will be that it's offering talented writers exposure and giving them the platform to go on to bigger (paid) things. They do have a point; an article on The Guardian website is a fairly strong seal of approval and it has been known for amateur journalists to be offered work elsewhere as a result.

There’s a similar thing going on over at the music section too. “Seen any good gigs recently?” the website asks, inviting the readers to “tell us about any live music you’ve seen”. 2011 has also seen the introduction of a section for readers of The Guardian to review any of the 3 million or so albums they have in their database. So, if you’re fed up with the smorgasbord of reviews by professional journalists or highly-experienced amateurs, a few clicks will give you the musings on Lou Reed & Metallica’s “Lulu” by such luminaries as ‘Kalyr’, ‘JezebelDulac’ and ‘thesliurge’.

A touch of uncharitable jealousy? Quite possibly, and it’s probably time to show my hand. I’m a writer, I’ve had over a hundred articles published on websites and in print, but I’ve never been paid a penny for my work. I’m trying to forge a path in an industry where there’s incredible competition for every position, and poor pay, exploitation and nepotism are rife. A large percentage of the UK’s unpaid internships are in the media; I once asked someone what the best way to make it in journalism was, they replied, “have a parent who owns a newspaper”.

I have my scruples though, and I’ve never knowingly taken a job from a professional by writing a piece for free that would normally be paid. This conscientious attitude may end up being my undoing and clambering over rivals could be the only way to the top. If that’s the case, I want no part in it.

However, this debate is nothing new, and the growth of the internet has led to a rise in ‘citizen journalism’ already. You can now leave your comments on any major news story, television programmes invite us to text in, tweet our photos and have our say. This tends to reach its annual nadir when national news programs show pictures of snowmen and viewers’ gardens to illustrate how cold it is, rather than carry important news.

Quality content cannot continue to be free everywhere; it’s a completely unrealistic business model. The Times, The Daily Mirror and The Independent operate behind paywalls already, and The Sun is considering a similar move. It would appear The Guardian is opposed to such measures, and maybe the only way to give people content for free is to obtain it for free. Don’t expect everybody to be happy about it though; as good writing and journalism become under valued, a new generation of writers may have to see exposure and kudos as a worthy alternative to cold, hard cash. There’s a danger that journalism could become an exclusive club for the well-off, rather than an honest profession. It would seem that an “open model of journalism” roughly equates to “anything goes”.

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