The Information Wants to Be Free, But is the Information Worth It?

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The BBC reports that Rupert Murdoch’s News International has launched London’s third free daily, referred to, without apparent deference to e.e. cummings or tomandandy, as thelondonpaper. The paper’s editor, Stefano Hatfield notes, “This is a generation who grew up with the world wide web. They usually get their news delivered to them in their e-mail inboxes or at the click of a button. It is difficult to persuade young people that news should be something you pay for.”

So if the information, as Hatfield suggests, wants to be free and is disseminated everywhere, is a free daily the answer in a dying newspaper market? Further, will a free daily, devoted to instantaneous four-paragraph stories instead of long-form pieces, dumb down journalism and encourage lazy reporting?

It’s difficult to gauge a newspaper on the other side of the Atlantic when you’re halfway across the world and you don’t have a copy in your hands, but a look at the Metro‘s website (the Metro is the current leading free London daily) isn’t encouraging. There are childish “Gimme” and “Play” sections, an egregious “Metrosexual” section loaded with insubstantial fluff[1] and poorly edited copy[2], absolutely no arts coverage to speak of[3], and a “Pictures” section which suggests a Fahrenheit 451 nightmare come to life.[4]

I cannot believe that the entire 18-35 generation is this dumb or this easily amused. If the bar is set this low, I wonder if a daily newspaper, even a free one, appealing to hard reporting and intellect could even find an audience amidst this glut. The development of the Metro and thelondonpaper may be similar to the New York newspaper wars in the 1890s. After all, both involve numerous competitors flooding a potential marketplace. Both involve efforts to push journalism beyond the status quo. Both involve upping the ante to reach new audiences.

I am by no means the first to make such a comparison. But where the 1890s crowd may have protested Hearst’s inflated coverage of the Spanish-American War, if London’s free dailies are devoted to junk news written by junk journalists and read by junk audiences, then will people protest or bother to scrutinize these ethereal dailies?

Then again, look at the blogosphere.

[1] I believe that a story about fertility and weight can be interesting, but when a reporter has only short and snappy paragraphs to cobble together a story and must compete with invasive pleas to join the interactive foray, how can any meaningful journalism be attempted?

[2] For example:

If you’re planning on working overseas the report reveals the best profession to get into if you want a bit of regular kinky after work exercise – 10 per cent of our young travellers get it on with the holiday rep.

What kind of sentence is this?

[3] Unless Kate Moss in underwear is a kind of art.

[4] The Metro was designed to be read in 20 minutes and has remained deliberately unchallenging. The second free daily, London Lite[5], is put out by Associated Newspapers. In this Guardian article, Associated free newspaper honcho Steve Auckland extolled the Lite‘s “long, turgid articles” and “lively, breezy format.”

[5] I hope I’m not the only one bothered by this spelling.

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One Comment

  1. Shit, try living here — there’s blogs devoted to these things they’re so bad. I offended a London Lite hander outer tonight by refusing his product and taking a thelondonpaper off the guy next to him, though both are but toilet paper for the hard up. The only silver lining to this is that the one paid-for London paper will be bankrupted by this and its literary editor forced to peddle his recycled Penguin press releases elsewhere.

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