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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Last House for the Left

There is a risk that this blog will become nothing but an excuse to quote Douglas Adams, and I will resist that temptation manfully, but it is hard to do when he wrote so widely and so well.

However...when composing this entry, I found myself thinking about his 1998 article "Riding the Rays".

You can find it here, and it merits half an hour of your time on its own, but the relevant bit comes in the second paragraph where he quotes the unsettling remarks of an Australian who refers to his home country is "the last place left". Adams discomfort comes from an intuitive fear that this might be true, and this neatly captures I feel about the Guardian.
I always resisted reading the paper for fear of being labelled a Guardianista with all that entails (although living and adoring South London as I do, I probably never had too much to worry about) but around 18 months ago a lot of things began to change for me. I bought an iPod and discovered podcasts, and this led to Point of Inquiry, Little Atoms and the SGU. I made some tentative visits to London Skeptics in the Pub and 9 Carols for Godless People, read The Demon Haunted World and a had a realisation that, contrary to my previous self-image, there were an awful lot of things I passionately believed in (notably freedom of expression, rationalism, and the scientific method - all of them enlightenment ideals).

Around the same time, I stopped buying the Independent following its umpteenth cost saving relaunch, which had led to much less genuine content at the expense of more colour pictures and irritating columnists, as well as the increasingly tedious front page photos and large headlines. Like everyone else, I started to get my news straight from blogs and multiple outlets via Google alerts and Reader. This is how I came across the Grauniad (to adopt its Private Eye moniker).

It fitted in with the other changes in my life and gave me what I wanted - better science coverage, better sports coverage, and an editorial line and tone that better fitted my newfound beliefs. I've also found occasions where I thought I was adopting a liberal, pro-science stance on an issue, but where the line taken by a columnist has convinced me the opposite position better embodies those beliefs. Witness last week's piece by Myles Allen on whether people's views on climate change should be afforded the same protection as religious ones. (there are superb reasons why they shouldn't, although my natural reaction was simply "Yay! Science!")
The other thing I loved was that I could get the whole paper online, as well as extra content like the science and football podcasts, and myriad blogs and articles I wouldn't have read otherwise. And better than all of that, it was free. Here is an example of freedom of expression and information being lived out by a major international media brand, and I and all the other Guardianistas could get our news without the daily hassle of buying the newspaper and getting ink on our fingers.

So, as with Adams who didn't visit Australia very often but knew he loved it, I feel better for knowing the Grauniad exists somewhere out there, relatively unspoiled, and I can look at it any time I like, as the last major bastion of left-leaning journalism.

However, it's a position I've been forced to rethink because there are good reasons to think its existence is under threat.

It's no secret that the bottom is falling out of print media, mainly because of the march of technology and the fall in advertising revenues. In the last week alone the Indie is on the verge of being sold to keep it open, and there is a further series of articles about the head-in-the-sand plan by Murdoch to charge (see charging for content). More worryingly, the Grauniad itself had to make redundancies last month, and there have been rumours about the Observer vanishing for a while. It is a distinct possibility that, unless things change, the Grauniad could cease to exist.
This fills me with dread, and not just because I've found something I love and I'm frightened of change. There are at least two good reasons why skeptics and rationalists can't afford to lose them.

First, is the heavy lifting argument put forward by Nick Davies to articulate why bloggers and amateur journalists will never be sufficient to protect freedom of expression in a healthy democracy. In the recent Carter-Ruck super-injunction contretemps, it was undoubtedly the Twitter campaign that won the day. But it was the Grauniad that found the story, it was the Grauniad that funded the legal action, and it was the cleverly crafted Grauniad front page that alerted everyone's attention to the issue. Individuals writing 140 characters about a topic of interest and amateur bloggers play a role, but to protect freedom of speech and hold governments to account, you need resources, profile and clout.

Secondly, and most chillingly, suppose Murdoch's grand gamble pays off. Suppose he finds a business model that works, that he finds a way of charging for online content that people sign up to. I admit this is unlikely, and I have no idea how it might work, but the old dog has found new tricks before, and he certainly has the wherewithal and pockets to give it a good go again. The Grauniad would face the unthinkable dilemma - move with the times and abandon its pioneering free web presence, or risk obsolescence in a changed world.

Then there's no place left, and that's why I'm worried.

So, I propose a campaign for Guardianistas to start buying the paper again. Not necessarily every day, and not necessarily for ever. Just for as long as it takes to find a model that secures the financial future of the institution while keeping content free.

I don't know how it will work or quite how to give it legs, but I'm hoping that the very medium that threatens our print media could see a viral campaign to save its most important institution.

All I need now is some readers who can pick it up and run with it.

1 comment:

  1. Don;t waste your money on the Grauniad, spend you hard-earned dollars on the Daily Tottygraph, now with added Hurley!


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