The idea of a £2 broadband tax to save quality newspapers is an idea out of time

The Guardian’s open journalism as represented by the Three little pigs ad produced by BBHOn the 16th January, 2006, I read a ‘quality’ piece of journalism by David Watkins on the MediaGuardian website.

It was the day of my 40th birthday. It was a piece of ‘quality’ writing – of the kind, I guess, that David Leigh would charge me and my broadband provider £2 a month for – that would turn my world upside down.

Just as Craig Newmark – one of the slayers-in-chief of the US newspaper classifieds market – was turning the once-comfortable world of the The San Francisco Chronicle, inside out with his little list. It is a worth a re-visit. If only for the fact that the doom of the printed newspaper has long been foretold.

Cut to this weekend and David Leigh’s plan for the salvation of quality journalism as proposed via a universal UK-wide broadband levy as thrown before the earnest Guardian masses and you get the strong sense that, to this day, the fundamental structural challenge posed by the web to traditional publishing houses is still deemed a relatively new phenomenon. Or at least among those not charged with trying to make the numbers work.

Leigh argued that a small levy on UK broadband providers – no more than £2 a month on each subscriber’s bill – could be distributed to news providers in proportion to their UK online readership. This would, he said, solve the financial problems of quality newspapers, whose readers are not disappearing, but simply migrating online.

“There are almost 20m UK households that are paying upwards of £15 a month for a good broadband connection, plus another 5m mobile internet subscriptions. People willingly pay this money to a handful of telecommunications companies, but pay nothing for the news content they receive as a result, whose continued survival is generally agreed to be a fundamental plank of democracy.

“A £2 levy on top – collected easily from the small number of UK service providers (BT, Virgin, Sky, TalkTalk etc) who would add it on to consumers’ bills – would raise more than £500m annually. It could be collected by a freestanding agency, on the lines of the BBC licence fee, and redistributed automatically to “news providers” according to their share of UK online readership.

“On the most recent figures, this system would provide transformative chunks of money to the most popular news websites,” Leigh wrote.

It was the parting line, however, from Newmark’s side-kick Clay Shirky that set my wheels in motion as a one-in-three redundancy process worked its way through the Archant local sports desk where I then did my bit for ‘quality’ sports reporting:

‘The only technological innovation that the newspaper industry is waiting for is a time machine so that it can turn back the clock…’

That and a £2 levy to be imposed on everyone’s broadband usage which – based on a paper’s online readership share – could then swell the coffers of, say, Guardian Media Group to the tune of £100 million a year. Ditto MailOnline. Even The Yorkshire Post would pocket £4 million.

Unable to deliver the 100,000 monthly users that Leigh’s master plan demands, the village site for Loddon, Norfolk, (pop 3,000) - would be left to its own fate. After all, democracy only starts at the doors of the US State Department.

I think the young man at the heart of that community site – the one now charged with holding their parish council to account – was seven years old when Mr Leigh set the bar for what made for a ‘news provider’… The VAT legislation of 1994 and which newspaper was zero-rated therein.

The big challenge, of course, is the ‘lean pickings’ of web advertising. Particularly for those wedded to the notion of free.

By chance last night I would also read The Economists latest thinking on The Guardian’s future; how – for generalist news sites – rates had now tumbled to around £7-£9 per CPM, half what they were pre the financial crash. Again, worth a background read for the travails that Messrs Rusbridger, Leigh and Co contend with, which was also recently covered here on the issue of why The Guardian will eventually have to put up a paywall.

Lean times, indeed, if you deem your future to be generalist. And not one of those niches you can find if you unbundle newspapers in an open and networked fashion. The Guardian’s woes being multiplied by the fact that all is now ‘open’ in their world. “Everyone has the same dilemma. It’s just that we’re utterly transparent about it,” was the quote from Andrew Miller.

Shirky’s piece would inspire me to take brand ‘Rick’ online; to launch MyFootballWriter/NorwichCity that summer and to seek a sustainable future for quality football writing via an online advertising model that would recognise the value of passionate, niche audiences.

And the fact that, as Shirky noted, it was the tree stainers that were in trouble, not the writers. The next time I took note of his thoughts - an essay on the Collapse Of Complex Business Models (tree stainers look away now…) – I read it on his blog; alerted to its presence via @cshirky on Twitter.

Between the two of us, we had cut David Watkins’ ‘quality’ writing and The Guardian’s intervention out of the loop. They were not part of our quality conversation. The world had moved on. And wasn’t coming back.

By the summer of 2010, the lessons delivered by both Mr Shirky and MyFootballWriter found me the CEO of an online advertising start up – trying to help Guardian Media Group monetize the passionate, city-centric niche audiences that Emily Bell had led them to in the shape of their GuardianLocal propositions for the cities of Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Some 50,000 punters apiece were enjoying the conversations in those specific spaces; watching one reporter, one lap-top and one desk space hold their local authorities to account. John Baron in Leeds would carry the torch for the maintenance of metropolitan democracy in West Yorkshire, just as Ben Olive would do that for village democracy in the community of Loddon, Norfolk. Neither – under Leigh’s ’100,000 monthly users’ rule – would get a slice of the broadband levy pie.

That level of engagement in three, such ‘niche’ communities was one that the smarter agencies took note of; Alfa (Headingly) and Toyota (Cardiff) were waiting in the wings to monetise said web content as GMG made the fateful decision to close local and open America (again) – and seek survival ‘in perpetuity’ by playing the volume game.

The same game that the MailOnline plays. Only better.

Which is my big beef with Leigh’s grand plan for the saving of ‘quality writing’ in the UK. That because the brains trusts that sit in Kings Place and Northcliffe House can only see ‘lean pickings’ from the pure, ‘top down’ volume ad plays to sit alongside the generalist content that they favour, the rest of us must pick up the tab.

And keep, in the case of GMG, cheese barges floating down the Grand Union Canal for next year’s Open Weekend or the nation in videos of the stage being set at Glyndbourne.

At some stage – in the none too distant future, either – this nation’s newspaper groups are going to have to get off their knees and start viewing the world from where the rest of us now live it. From the bottom up. Empowered and enabled to hold our own conversations with those of the same communal interest. And, equally, take greater note of Eric Schmidt’s dictum delivered at DreamForce last year that the winning platforms of the future will be ‘mobile, social… and local.’

Slapping my 12-year-old lad or anyone else with a £2 levy in the vain (both senses) belief that it is only a Leigh that can ever keep democracy alive in this country is the stuff of time machines. As Mr Shirky, Ms Bell and me keep trying to tell them…