In 2001, American alt-country singer Gillian Welch released a song that, in her ever-so-quiet way, excoriated the download generation. Everything Is Free made a crucial observation: that musicians, artists and writers would keep creating content regardless of whether anyone actually wanted to pay for it or not.
“Everything is free now,” she sang plaintively. “That’s what they say / Everything I ever done / Gotta give it away / Someone hit the big score / They figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn’t pay.”
That drive – the physical compulsion to create – has always been at the centre of the artist’s core. They don’t choose to live in penury as such: poverty is simply the most common by-product of the fact that one doesn’t really choose to be an artist, either. It’s something that more often chooses you.
Welch wrote the song just before file-sharing service Napster was taken to the cleaners in the courts, but the damage was already done. Who wanted to pay for anything they could get for free anymore? Loudon Wainwright III put Welch’s viewpoint more pungently in another song, Something For Nothing: “It’s OK to steal, ’cause it’s so nice to share.”
Which brings me to a brief selection of comments on The Age’s website that followed the news [on 18 June] that it would be moving to a paid subscription model.
“There is no need to pay for news when it’s so readily available on the internet for free,” says “Problem?”. “People won’t pay for the news when an alternative source is just a mouse click away,” concurs “The Redback”. “You charge for online and you will be destroyed,” threatens “Tony”.
And then this: “If you want to sell more papers, inprove [sic] the quality of your articles and pay journalists what they are worth,” says “Homer Ridgemoore”. Pay them more? With what, exactly? You simply can’t pay for journalists, or anything approaching serious journalism, without a secure revenue base.
It’s the collapse of that base that’s resulted in the staff sackings, the outsourcing of sub-editing and rationalising of content. Most critically, the resources required for the pursuit of serious and lengthy investigations conducted in the name of the public interest are in real jeopardy.
There’s rarely the time for those investigations, either. The impatience of the 24-hour news cycle ensures that. A diminution of quality and diversity is the inevitable result. Fair enough, then, that no one wants to pay for a dodgy product.
We should surely, though, be prepared to pay for a better one.
Of course, readers never underpinned the salaries of journalists – advertising did that – so no one blames consumers for the parlous state of the industry. But if the likes of Homer and Tony don’t think their sense of entitlement isn’t even a little cog in this vicious circle, they’re kidding themselves.
It’s one thing to chip away at the already pitiful incomes of songwriters by downloading. Welch and Wainwright, with worldwide fan bases, are probably two of the luckier ones. And, as Welch promised, they’re gonna do it anyway.
But if you think you’re entitled to high-quality news content for free – and will continue to get it – then you’re not only deluded, you’re chipping away at something much bigger. Other than the ideologues concerned only with the destruction of their enemies, we’ve all got a stake in maintaining a plurality of voices in this country.
As Martin McKenzie-Murray pointed out, while it’s true the internet has provided us with a greater diversity of voices than ever before, we can’t expect citizen journalists to uncover the stories that really matter while working around their day jobs.
Nor can we expect their work to be treated with the same respect. That may sound like an odd thing to say, given that trust in commercial media is at a low ebb, but in the corridors of power at least, working for an old masthead still carries with it the force of imprimatur that a blogger will never have.
If readers genuinely want to see traditional news media survive and thrive online into the next millennium, then one thing they’re going to have to let go of is the idea that they can have it for nothing. Unfortunately, that idea’s been allowed to take root for more than a decade.
Without readers who are willing to take some ownership of the news media themselves – in the same way they used to when the morning papers they subscribed to were tossed on their front lawns, to be digested with their coffee and toast – the 1900 people about to be thrown out of work will be just the beginning.
Some of them, at least, might take solace in Gillian Welch’s words. “I could get a straight job / I’ve done it before / Never minded working hard / It’s who I’m working for.”
First published by The Age, 27 June 2012