Is Free News Killing Good Science Journalism?

The Times and Sunday Times online should be sat behind a pay wall by the time of the UKCSJ.  Other UK national newspapers are, for the time being, sticking with the free model.  But is the free model sustainable, and what effect has free access, and the 24 hour news cycle had on standards in science reporting.  Should good journalism be ‘given away’ or does quality always come at a price?

Speakers: George Brock (City University) Martin Robbins (The Lay Scientist)  Joanna Geary (Web Development Editor, The Times). Chair: Jeremy Webb (Editor-in-Chief, New Scientist).

Session Review

Carolyn Kelday, Student Representative, ABSW Committee

High quality goods are never given away for free - think of the Apple iPod - but people expect to access information on the internet for free. So should quality science writing on the web come at a price?

The Times is leading the way forward and recently applied a 'paid for' model to their online content. Joanna Geary from The Times justified this decision as a revenue generator for quality science journalism. Publications need to earn money in order to pay for good science journalists and create quality output. "The free-to-access advertising model is one way of generating income, but it would mean doubling the readership to create enough income", Joanna says. The choice of sponsored content can cause brand ID problems if they are not chosen carefully. The paid-for model is a better long term option for The Times according to Joanna, with increased financial stability. Well aware of the risks of this newly adopted paid-for model, Joanna said "it's an experiment and we will find out what happens."

Blogging has changed in recent years, said the next speaker Martin Robbins, "It's not in conflict with traditional media anymore." The top 100 bloggers, he says, are all writing for traditional media company run platforms such as Scientific American. The extensive coverage on the internet results in a certain level of redundancy for each story that is covered. Martin says that the industry doesn't need saving, but a clean-up of the wasted content. Martin then referred to the success of the porn industry. After the market became flooded with amateurs, the industry harnessed their content and gave them their own platform. This generated revenue and allowed companies to invest in bigger and better quality productions.

According to George Brock, whether news should be free or paid for is a matter of business efficiency. George doubts that any damage has been done to science journalism yet as consequences take time to occur after technical innovations. He said it is difficult to predict the consequences of change but that consumers do not value journalism. Once more value is placed on content, people will pay, he says.

George suggests that the advertising model cannot be reproduced for the digital world in the same way as the print world as space is infinite on the web. He added that we will have to assume that quality journalism will continue to be free in the near future. The Times experiment is being watched and the results may remain ambiguous for a while, but if the industry is to cope with the glut of information that is now available on the web, The Times will need to share the results of their 'experiment' with others in order to more forward and keep science journalism alive. Certainly, the more we experiment, the more we will know, but how things will progress remains uncertain.