It seems ironic that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Iron Curtain a new wall has just been erected in part of Eastern Europe. Slovakia didn’t exist as a country when I was born, but last week its main print media erected a paywall. This is being tried elsewhere by individual newspapers of course but curiously in Slovakia the one paywall is around 9 different websites, sites that in the normal course of things should be competing with each other. These sites are basically the entire countries print media online, they’ve taken this step as they say commercially they can’t continue on advertising revenue alone. They have some things in their favour though, for a start no one else in the world speaks Slovak so they don’t need to worry about people accessing sites based abroad. They also feel that as a small country there is a market for ‘local’ news that would never be reported by the global news channels. They claim that it has been a success too, well at least so far. Time will tell whether the average Slovak is willing to pay for something that the rest of the world is still currently accessing pretty much free of charge.
It’s curious that this should happen at this time as the UK ‘traditional’ media have been getting into an awful state over reporting restrictions. The term ‘super-injunction’ has entered the vernacular now as all the mainstream media make a big fuss over their inability to report something, in many cases an affair between two consenting adults, at least one of who is probably famous. This in itself isn’t the issue; the issue is that anyone with access to the internet can find out the names of these people within 10 seconds, rendering the papers impotent anyway. We had the ridiculous situation on Friday where the reporting that the court injunction had been upheld by the mainstream media sent the name of the famous person in question to the top of Twitter trending in almost every country in the world. It was a farce really and it was brought to a head on Sunday when the Sunday Herald newspaper finally named the person they weren’t allowed to name. Their argument wasn’t that they wanted to fill pages with salacious gossip, they didn’t, it was that they were being restricted in reporting something that was quite clearly not being enforced elsewhere, mainly because it was more or less impossible to. This argument is as much an economic one as anything. The press in particular are finding it increasingly difficult to adapt to the internet and preventing them reporting stories, no matter how vacuous, is a handicap they could do without. Fair enough.
My worry in all this is that it spectacularly misses the point. How people consume news and information is changing, and frankly no amount of tabloid kiss and tell stories is going to prevent that. Had one of the main tabloids broken this story in the normal way I would have found about it, but not because I’d bought that paper or even visited its website. Someone, one of the 152 people I follow on Twitter would have mentioned it, either that or one of the 80 or so people on my Facebook page would have cracked a joke about it or tut-tutted with moral outrage. If not them then someone on a football message board would certainly have brought it up, and no doubt my email inbox or text messages will be filled by amateur comedians over the coming days, at least if today was anything to go by.
This is an issue for the media and for the marketing industry who rely upon them. Understanding that the ‘game’ has fundamentally changed is one thing, figuring out what game we’re now all playing seems to be completely another one. Trying to keep ‘news’ behind a wall simply won’t work, not when we’ve all got big ladders that allow us to peek over whenever we feel like it.