Comment isn’t free, Declan – but it is cheap
Declan Lynch has form when it comes to spouting nonsense about online journalism. While his column has clearly shown he knows next to nothing about the web (Twitter is little more than “a bunch of people talking about what they had for breakfast”), as a long-time columnist for the Sunday Independent, shouldn’t he know a bit more about the history and economics of newspaper publishing?
Just as newspaper chief executives longingly hark back to a golden age of growing circulations, advertisers jamming the switchboards and profit margins rarely seen outside drug dealing, Lynch hangs his piece on a golden age of quixotic but brilliant editors such as the Observer’s David Astor, who hired disgraced butlers and former lion tamers (he doesn’t mention that he also hired George Orwell and kept the Observer running by using his family fortune).
Lynch “senses echoes” of Aenghus Fanning, the late Sunday Independent editor, in Robert McCrum’s description of Astor. It seems odd that Lynch misses the echoes in Astor eventually selling the Observer to an oil magnate for £1, given that is how much Alexander Lebedev paid Independent News & Media for the Sunday Independent’s sister titles in London.
Lynch has little time for “the noise” of an industry “bamboozling themselves” with “gibberish” as it faces the ”challenges of the online age” and suggests the industry just start talking about it. Yet his piece makes no mention of the fairly digestible problems facing newspapers - falling circulation, falling advertising revenues, the impact of 24-hour TV news and the impact of the internet.
Instead, his latest solution (last time it was paywalls) is more comment, less news. In case you think I am oversimplifying:
“Given that most people don’t get their news from the paper any more, the one outstanding service that any paper can provide, is a view — a commentary, a perspective on what has happened.”
First off, it’s a long time since most people got their news from a paper – “most people” get their news from television.
Brushing aside the lack of research on his part, has Lynch been online? The notion that newspapers can hold up commentary as some sort of USP (that’s unique selling proposition, in case you’re bamboozled) is ludicrous. For comment, it is already a very crowded marketplace – Huffington Post, Slate, Salon.com, The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Atlantic, the Economist, to name but a few, not to mention every other newspaper, magazine and an ever-present army of bloggers who will comment on anything. For free.
Lynch also has a pop at those meanies who told him you needed to be a provincial reporter covering boring court cases for years to earn your spurs as a proper journalist. Despite offering evidence for neither, he says:
“So they were wrong about that, and they weren’t right either about the old chestnut that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.
The ‘comment is free’ bit, as any reader of The Guardian or watcher of their bizarre TV ads knows, is from an essay by another legendary editor, CP Scott. Had Lynch read it, he would have come across this bit:
“There are people who think you can run a newspaper about as easily as you can poke a fire, and that knowledge, training, and aptitude are superfluous endowments. There have even been experiments on this assumption, and they have not met with success.”
I am confused as to why Lynch thinks that a newspaper could be saved by having a class of professional commenters kept safely behind a paywall, but not by an open-market class of reporters and editors who have served their time learning a trade. And therein lies the rub. Filling a paper with comment is far cheaper than filling it with news. Filling it with free comment is cheaper still and there is plenty of it about. Lynch should be careful what he wishes for.