Two signposts for two clear trends this week.
Last night a journalist whose form is live-blogging won the “Political Journalist of the Year” title at the UK Press Awards. This is Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian, who has carved himself a niche as the Westminster reporter who writes minute-by-minute bulletins of big political set pieces and crises. What makes Sparrow good is his blend of old skills and new form. He is fast, but he is also wise.
As I’ve heard him explain, he began as a normal political reporter and just evolved his live-blog speciality as he went along. He doesn’t think live blogs on any subject replace reporting of a more conventional kind; they complement and enrich it. His strength lies in a combination of “old” qualities (journalistic self-discipline, background depth) and the “new” digital opportunity to distribute updates frequently and instantly.
Second trend sign: people experimenting with paywalls. It isn’t a coincidence that at least two newspapers on either side of the Atlantic announced digital charges this week: in Wolverhampton and Tulsa (with perhaps San Francisco to come). This isn’t just a metropolitan rarity any more. And we had the first public appearance by the two head honchos at the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson, since the paper announced its metered payment system.
Identifying this shift for what it is matters. The trend isn’t “building paywalls”; charging for digital content remains, so far, the choice of a minority. What these companies are doing is experimenting to solve a problem. If an experiment fails there may be a cost: money spent that’s written off, damaged careers perhaps. But even with a failure, there’s a gain: knowledge, data on which to build a better experiment.
The issue of paying for journalism delivered digitally is clouded by dogmatic positions for and against. What the experiments are doing is dissolving the dogma with evidence about what happens when you charge. In creating the knowledge, they are creating value.