The Sydney Morning Herald

by Tim Dick

Barriers are rising but a revolution has yet to grow.

The Russian revolution followed Marx's manifesto and begat Lenin. The cultural revolution was all Mao. The sexual one was influenced by Freud and adopted vigorously by the rest of us.

Revolutions usually have leaders, but just who might be the leader of the digital media revolution remains unclear. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, leader of social media and subject of a historical drama just six years after launching his website? Or News Corporation's Rupert Murdoch, experimenting in charging for news online?

Or will it be someone like the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, one of the world's prominent pay-wall-sceptics, people who believe news online probably always will be without charge to the reader?

Rusbridger is coming to Sydney to deliver the ABC's annual Andrew Olle Media Lecture, 27 years after his only other visit had him following Prince Charles and Princess Diana around the country. After 15 years as editor of Britain's flagship left-leaning daily, and its enormously popular global website, he will speak on the future of the fourth estate.

It is a timely address. In Britain, Murdoch has shut off The Times, The Sunday Times and his tabloid screamer News of the World from all readers inside Britain and out, other than those who buy a hard copy or pay to read their websites or mobile applications.

So far, they have registered small numbers of digital buyers - 105,000 for the quality publications - but News is confident that buying news online will become as normal as buying it printed on paper, particularly if it is easy and relatively cheap. While media groups have been giving away their work online, there is a recognition something has to give.

The New York Times is preparing a porous paywall of its own, and plenty of newspaper groups hope the experiments work, including Fairfax, publisher of the Herald. It already has one paywall for The Australian Financial Review, and charges for some apps. It will reveal some of its strategy later this month, after poor circulation figures this week and a long-running internal debate over where to draw a possible pay curtain.

But if the leader of this media revolution is to be Rusbridger, or someone like him, prepare for one without end. ''I think it's going to be a perpetual revolution,'' he says. ''I don't think there's going to be a moment in my journalistic lifetime at which we can say, 'Oh great, we got there and now we can relax again.' My expectation is that there's probably constant change. Constant challenge and constant opportunity.''

Newspapers have long driven the news cycle - with radio and TV following up their reports - paying for the journalism through advertising and subscriptions. But despite a resurgent advertising market they stay under pressure as the relatively stable postwar business model has been undermined.

We have less time to read newspapers, and there is fierce competition from news online and from copious amounts of television news.

Plus, news is now being distributed by recommendation through social networks. Some argue they are weak and - particularly Twitter - little more than a forum in which politicians, journalists and other self-promoters praise and criticise each other's work.

Not Rusbridger. ''Even if you just viewed it as a distribution channel,'' he says, ''it's both immensely threatening to what we do and a fantastic boost to what we do.''

It improves on Google by more efficiently giving you stuff you find interesting, and reducing the need for you to go through advertising-lucrative homepages of news websites to find it yourself.

It is a tool that lets journalists find people on the ground - including those who had located the debris, via Twitter, from a Qantas A380 engine - but it is gossip on speed: users reported the plane had crashed, leading to some offering condolences shortly before it landed safely in Singapore.

The authority of traditional media - which largely got the Qantas story straight before reporting the gossip - is its main asset. Another is giving people a sense of being finished with ''the news'' and up-to-date. Some website readers report an unease at not being aware of other news going on, but Rusbridger is pragmatic about losing the benefit of generality in favour of personalised news.

''Certainly in the UK and in America and in most of Europe we're working with the reality that not enough people are attached to the idea of news,'' he says. ''We can say it's a glorious thing and you ought to read it. But if they're not reading it, then we have to think of a plan B.

''Yes, there is a danger that people just read what they know and what they are interested in. The counter-argument is a lot of younger readers use the web in a very promiscuous way, in that they're not happy [with] just one source for something.''

When the digital media revolution began, the difficulties it presented for dominant media were met with a kind of glee by those who hoped for a free utopia of information and discourse unshackled from the interests of media moguls.

That has given way to increasing concern that a reduction in professional journalism subsidised by subscriptions, sales and advertising is bad not only for publishers, but for society.

As the former San Francisco Examiner editor Larry Kramer wrote in September, despite the new amazing power to discover what is already there, most news still comes from newspaper journalists. ''New media have been cannibalising the expensive original content once fed by the traditional media business model. The corpse won't last forever.''

Australia's newspapers are hardly dead. They remain generally profitable, with circulation overall down about 4 per cent over two years. And online news is dominated by Fairfax, News Ltd and Ninemsn. That is not the case in America, where no newspaper is in the top 25 websites.

Still, journalism here faces structural challenges, too, a change Murdoch is attempting to address with his roll-out of paywalls that is expected to come to Australia sooner or later. So far, efforts to charge for general news have struggled, especially when basic news is offered for free from many places, including sites that will never charge (such as the ABC).

But 23 per cent of Australian adults already pay for books, magazines or newspapers online, says Nielsen research, and there are plenty, Google included, experimenting with different ways to make news pay.

James Fallows, Atlantic magazine's national correspondent and a professor of US media at the US Studies Centre, agrees with Rusbridger's view the media revolution will be ongoing. ''And the relative role of print will go down, but not to zero,'' he says. ''Which, if we can find ways to pay for the online version, is fine.''

After investigating Google's experiments with newspapers for online charging, Fallows disagrees with those who say paying online is against the way of the web. ''Of course there's going to be some way for people to pay, and we're in the process of figuring out what it will be.''

Even Rusbridger says he is willing to change tack if paywalls work. ''If someone hits upon a magic formula which raises lots of money without reducing access drastically, we'll always look at that,'' he says. ''I'm not a free-extremist.''