In defence of Barry and the NBR

Bloggers have been pecking at NBR publisher Barry Colman after his very public swipe at online media. Thing is, in many ways he's right.

My, but Barry Colman has put a cat amongst the online pigeons. The owner of the National Business Review has decided to charge a subscription fee for "the best news stories, scoops and commentary" on the paper's website – roughly 20 percent of NBR's online content. In doing so he took a swipe at bloggers, many of whom have bridled at his criticism. Thing is, Colman has a point.

Colman wrote an open letter to readers on Friday saying that it was "crazy" for newspapers to pay "enormous costs" gathering news only to give it away for free online. He didn't want to start "slashing newsroom numbers" as has happened at the Fairfax and APN papers, so was going to start charging online.

More like a loaf of bread than a cat, Colman's open letter to readers has been picked over pretty thoroughly online. If you want to consider the business risk Colman's taking check out Bernard Hickey's reply or Rusell Brown's commentary. Those guys know as much about web publishing as just about anyone in this country. Bernard indulges in a little nonsense about blogging being "intensely democratic... the better the content, the bigger the audience" (NB: there's nothing magical about blogging that somehow makes brands, marketing, controversey etc irrelevant), but otherwise they offer some wise observations and suspect that Colman's made a strategic error. Russell makes the very telling point that Colman is trying to make money out of commentary – the very thing the web has more than enough of. He may do better following the old dictum that opinions are two-a-penny but facts are golden, and charge accordingly.

The core question Colman's experiment will answer, I guess, is whether people will pay for something when they can get something similar elsewhere. Why pay for the NBR when you can get Herald Business, BusinessDay, and business papers from around the world free online?

On the business front I bow to both Bernard and Russell, who have leveraged their websites into the basis of a decent living. But neither live as well as Colman and I suspect he'll remain a Rich Lister while the rest of us muddle along in comparative poverty with our websites and our brave new media models.

The often over-looked fact is that newspapers in this country are still turning nice wee profit. Sure, the numbers aren't what they were and probably can't carry the weight of a corporate structure the way they used to, but they're still making a bucketload more money than any news website. Bernard has done a remarkable job with and his commandments offer a way to make a reasonable living off a website (assuming you write about a specialist area such as finance and can data mine as he does. For those of us in current affairs, his model doesn't work). But while he's figured out how to make a small profit from free business news, he doesn't know how to rescue the news business as a whole. No-one does.

The unfortunate truth underneath all this is that when it comes to the journalism, Colman is right to be concerned. You can call him a dinosaur and talk about new business models until you're blue in the face, but the fact is that newsrooms in this country are being decimated and no-one knows how to stop the downward spiral. The spin doctors are winning, most bloggers don't have access to the decision makers, and much web content has no respect for balance. Tick, tick, and tick. Colman's bang on, and he's fighting back.

Where Colman got bloggers really hot under the collar was with this comment:

"... the [free online news]model has spawned a huge band of amateur, untrained, unqualified bloggers who have swarmed over the internet pouring out columns of unsubstantiated “facts” and hysterical opinion."

Obviously he's wrong to ignore the expert blogging that is emerging in this country. Everyone on Pundit, for example, is an expert in their own right. Is David Lewis an "amateur"? Is Andrew Geddis "unqualified"? Is Claire Browning "untrained"? Colman would thank his lucky stars if he had journalists of the calibre of Jane Young, David Beatson, David Young, Keith Ovenden, Nicky Hager, Toby Manhire and Eleanor Black in his newsroom.

Come on, Barry, spend a little more time online. Anyone who loves journalism should relish the new voices – many of them expert – that the web has drawn into the public square.

And frankly, a newspaper with the partisan track record of the NBR – remember the Hubbard mayoral campaign when they followed him to church? – has some nerve criticising others for "biased and inaccurate reporting".

On the other hand, Colman is undeniably right. There are thousands of people blogging who don't know what they're talking about, who give momentum to conspiracy and hearsay and who simply rant in public because technology has saved them the trip to Speakers' Corner in London. Unsurprisingly, those most offended by Colman's remarks are those who best fit his description.

I'll defend Pundit and the work we do here without qualm, and I'll argue with a passion that we are an important supplement to traditional media. Yet the fact remains that blogs are in no position to replace it. Blogs are a parasite slowly killing the host, and if we consume traditional media before someone finds a sustainable model for mass news, we'll all suffer.

For now, no-one has the answer. Bernard and his model ain't it. Rupert Murdoch's struggling for ideas. And Colman, well, I think he's guessing as well.

But let's show a little respect, eh? And let's not get over-excited by the newness of the web.

We shouldn't overlook the fact that newspapers, for example, have been tried and tested time and again for decades. They have stood up to advertisers and governments and even readers time and again; have web publishers shown such courage yet? One of the things that concerns me about web media is that the ethical foundations are weak. The wall between news and commerce, so carefully erected by the newspaper giants, is only a few bricks high at most websites.

Sometimes the web people get so excited by the new that they forget that traditional media still does the job better than anyone – who breaks by far the majority of news stories, employs the most journalists and provides more New Zealanders with their daily news? It's not bloggers. Or as I've put it elsewhere:

Some bloggers do break some stories. But few are full-time professionals spending their working lives nurturing and nagging sources, gathering facts, analyzing trends; that is, the hard work of news.

Without traditional media there would simply be less news, and as a result a weaker democracy and a less informed population. And no-one wants that.