A startling thought struck me this morning when I read the stories about the Times deciding to charge £1 a day to enjoy their websites. Not just "Who the fuck is going to pay that?", although I did think that, obviously. Not even "Bloody hell, even when it was free I didn't really visit there that often", though I thought that as well.
No, the rather more self-centred thought I had was: if all newspaper websites start setting up toll booths, is that it? Am I doomed? There's no way I can afford £1s here and there to look up a couple of poxy stories on the internet and then blog about them; what am I supposed to do? Sneak around the back somehow? Start sneakily taking photos of newspapers in the corner shop? What am I going to do?
Serves you right, I'm sure some of you are thinking, you've been riding off the back of other people's hard work for too long. And I have some sympathy for that point of view; not a great deal, but enough to shrug my shoulders a tiny bit before going back to not giving a shit again because I don't think it's really true.
It's one of those things that I've heard said about blogging, that it's just a parasitic form of writing, and relies on leeching off source material. To an extent you can argue that, but that does a great disservice to what blogging is and what it can be. The very best blogging has opened up all kinds of material - published by the press or by the Government - to proper scrutiny from the punters, and that's got to be a good thing. It's one of the wonders of the web: open access to information, by everyone, so we can make up our minds. A says something. B writes about it. C blogs about it. D leaves annoying comment correcting what C said under C's blog post. C gets pissed off but grudgingly realises they didn't get it quite right. E corrects error in D's comment. And so on, and so on. I find it all an overwhelmingly positive thing for our culture, regardless of the racist CAPSLOCK you get under everything ever on YouTube, for example. That's like comparing the Daily Mail to journalism: it's just not fair on journalists.
It might suit all kinds of people to return to an age where the Fourth Estate is the only arbiter of what gets seen and what doesn't, and the only way you can see what they've got to say is by paying through the nose. But I don't know if you can put the lid back on the box in a news arena where the BBC will provide content accessible to all thanks to the licence fee (and no wonder Auntie is under sustained attack from the Murdoch papers), and other papers will too. I've always thought things like this are like Marxism: it only works if everyone does it at once. Naturally, if it makes that pus-filled cockroach Mr Murdoch a stack, then they'll all copy, but will it work? No-one really knows for sure.
Let's not pretend, by the way, that these brave and diligent news multinationals will use the money from subscriptions to fund quality journalism, instead of chucking it with all the speed and accuracy of a Gareth Edwards pass straight to the shareholders' wallets. They might get the onions out and tell you they're on their uppers and that if they don't get you pay then they're going to have to start buying bullets - but I don't think it's that desperate, just yet, despite the decline of the industry in general.
I'm pretty relaxed about it all as far as this blog and this type of blogging is concerned. You'll also notice I try to write about a little bit more than just the miserable excesses of the papers here. (All right, so you may not think it's all that interesting, the non-press-bashing bits, but I enjoy it... we can all pull our ripcords and float down to Tabloid Island later.) If it happens, it happens; if it doesn't, it doesn't. I'll keep writing about whatever, maybe go through a whole paper every now and then, like I did with the Mail last Friday.
There may be workarounds, anyway, but it might be interesting to see just how seriously papers will now take their content. Linky love doesn't mean too much if you're linking to something behind a drawbridge and moat; likewise quoting chunks of an article might be frowned upon, especially if people can't link to the original, or know their readers can't see the original. It might come to a point, you could reasonably predict, whereby a blogger might quote something out of context from a paywalled story, completely misrepresenting it, without readers being able to find it for themselves through an internet search or jumping straight there through a link. I wonder if the papers will be annoyed by that, or seek to target people who quote their paywalled stories?
Exciting times ahead, then. I don't know if it's going to work. If it makes that odious devil Murdoch more money, then I hope it doesn't. And it's not quite in the spirit of the web to start re-installing paywalls, a la 2001. Those days are gone, I think. The web isn't some shitty nightclub, and if your name's not down, I think you should be allowed in anyway.
But we'll see. All I will say is that I can't see a time when you have to pay to read this.