Free! to the South West


My local area has its own experiment with the Free! model. Bristol 24-7 is a free-to-read online news portal, set up and operated by Chris Brown, and he’s just reported his first run-in with his print media rivals:

In a nutshell, [The Bristol Evening Post] insisted that I could not rewrite its content and publish it on my site, even with a credit in the first paragraph and a link back to the original source on its website. A particularly amusing complaint considering newspapers up and down the country have passed off re-writes as their own for years.

If you came into Paperhouse before May this year, then you know that I’ve had my concerns about the newsgathering and reporting techniques of, not the BEP specifically, but its sister papers in the region, so I’ve got a bit of sympathy with Brown’s dig here. Meanwhile, the Evening Post’s attempt to defend itself from competition by preventing other websites from summarising and linking to its contents (a technique that’s recently been given a speculative legal outing in the States) is simply asinine, entirely missing the operation of the link economy online and stretching copyright to the point of smashing discussion. Brown:

My reply to them was that if they really felt they had no need of free publicity from sites such as mine, which aims to provide people with a full range of news from ALL sources, then that was fine. I would in future take their own stories on myself, adding new angles and better balance of the issues, but would have no obligation to credit them as the original source. The fact is though is that I will continue to do that anyway, because I feel it is more honest and gives readers the chance to decide for themselves on the validity of what they are being presented.

Their attitude was not surprising, but goes to the heart of why the business of producing news is suffering so much in the internet age. My opinion is: you cannot ‘own’ news. […]

And yet – news isn’t just a thing awaiting discovery, out there where anyone can see it. It takes time, skill, funds and resources to make a good story – fixed costs that can’t be digitised out of existence – and as Brown rises to his Free! theme, it starts to sound as though he’s thought through every expense involved in news production and distribution, apart from the actual journalism:

On Wednesday, I went to listen to Chris Anderson from Wired magazine in the US speak at a Festival of Ideas evening at @Bristol. The main point I took was that in the old economy of producing “stuff” – material goods – the costs inevitably rose year on year. But in the digital age the same pattern is repeating in reverse, the cost of producing digital material and content is falling year on year.

What this means for journalists – and the people who still, I believe, want to read the news of what is happening in their community – is that the ability and costs to spread this news is falling closer and closer to zero. And this takes the power of “ownership” out of the hands of traditional news suppliers. We do not have to rely on them to find out what is happening in our city.

That is how it should be. News was never meant to be owned in a democracy. It is about what happens to us and the people around us. And we are free to share it as far and wide as we can.

Like Phil Chamberlain, I appreciate that Bristol 24-7 hasn’t launched itself on a slurry on unpaid interns. But for all the inspiring talk of democracy and freedom, what it actually seems able to offer is a long way short of the sort of detailed scrutiny that could earn those terms – and unless it begins to see “new angles and better balance of the issues” as essential parts of reporting rather than the optional extras that let you carry off someone else’s story, it’s hard to feel hopeful for the 24-7 vision of the future.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

One thought on “Free! to the South West

  1. Good points there. News *is* free, but at the same time I’d be interested to see how Chris Anderson would feel if I repurposed one of Wired’s – heavily researched, usually beautifully written – features for my own site without much rewriting, offering him a link and a faint promise of ‘publicity.’

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