Last month, a group of European news outlets drew up the 'Hamburg Declaration'. It demands that the European authorities take measures to prevent the re-use (they call it theft) of 'their' content. They want to demand money for 'their' news, as they get with printed editions.
Of course, publishers are free to hide their articles and other content behind a wall, available only to subscribers. They can also prevent search engines from indexing (and saving) their content. They can even choose to have no website at all, and reach only a shrinking and aging audience. You do not have to be a twitter-using iPhone owner to predict what happens to a news organisation that starts a subscriber-only website or exists completely offline. For the growing number of readers of online news does not focus on individual outlets and there are many, many others which are eager to feed for free this readership's insatiable hunger for information 24/7.
The publishers claim that their model is unsustainable if they unable to pay editors to maintain standards, and thus their role as the watchdog of democracy is at stake. This thesis contains two parts, both doubtful:
1. The need for a classic, paid editorial as the only possible way to make news and information accessible. Very touching in a month where the traditional media are dependent on the twitter- and youtube-savvy citizens in Iran. CNN calls on its viewers every 30 minutes to continue sending in videos (with some interesting results). Nowadays on most newspaper forums, the comments and links posted by readers are often more relevant than the content of the article, which is just a copy/paste of AP or Reuters, and I had those already. Once the subject matter is specialised (and that often occurs in a complex world), the editors may not have the in-depth knowledge to understand an issue, so it is better to go to a specialised site where the authors as well as the responding readers are professionals.
2. The crucial role of the traditional media as a watchdog of democracy. Where shall I begin, in an area so rich with juicy examples? The New York Times that, after more than a year, admits that it failed in just this role in the run-up to the attack on Iraq? The Dutch national newshour and so-called "quality newspaper", which accused Iran of having a nuclear weapons program, while both the CIA and experts such as the International Atomic Energy Agency are confident that this is not the case? The constant failure to ask the truly painful questions, as they might prevent editors from being 'granted' the occiasional scoop? Bloggers who report things that should be in the national news? Or how about Mr Broertjes, editor of The Volksrant, who talked about a reducing investigative journalism because it meant taking people "out of production". 'Production' in this context means reading the AP/AP or Reuters newsfeeds and other news releases, then quickly writing a short article. Exactly the behaviour newspapers accuse bloggers of.
Based on my experience of the established media in recent years, I just do not trust them as a primary source of information about interesting events; too often they have failed to ask the difficult questions. And whether that is down to incompetence, lack of courage or something else does not matter much. In a Europe where surveillance and censorship have become normal and where we get dragged into wars and occupations, there is plenty for the guardians of democracy to do.
So if the former watchdogs take up that role again I will pay for a subscription, provided I get the information in a way that suits my lifestyle (and not once every 24 hours on a piece of dead tree). From the former office of Mr Broertjes, I hope the editorial staff find both courage and a spine.