Professor Anton Harber’s article No free lunch as readers pay for quality information was first published in Business Day and BDlive today.     Extracts with permission but click on either link to read the article online in BDlive [free registration required].

THE JSE is suggesting that listed companies will no longer be required to publish full and detailed results in at least two national newspapers and two languages.   This will threaten about R150m of the advertising that sustains our lively business press — and put the future of some newspapers and magazines at stake.

In many ways, this is inevitable, as the internet allows for much quicker, longer and cheaper distribution of this material.   The JSE will only be following the example of most of its international equivalents.   It originally proposed the measure some years back, but delayed it because of the negative effect it would have on our media.

The role of journalists in digging out the details hidden in annual reports may be more important than ever — but, ironically, the capacity to do it might be lower than ever, as the loss of advertising revenue takes its toll on the size and quality of newsrooms.

The loss of revenue is going to shake up the print media industry.

These publications will have to get more of their revenue elsewhere, and that can mean only one thing: consumers will pay more to get what they want or need.   If the advertiser won’t pay, the reader and user will have to cough up more to get the same service.

This shift away from free or near-free news and information has been under way for some time, but it is likely to accelerate dramatically in the next year or two.

I expect you will still get immediate news flashes and masses of junk information and entertainment free.   But for quality information and analysis, for explanations and investigations and careful scrutiny, you can expect to start paying.

In SA, the Sunday Times and the Times have taken their sites behind paywalls with very limited success, but this may have something to do with the nature of these papers and the way they made the change.

The international pattern is that readers — and particularly business readers — are prepared to pay for those websites that offer quality information that people need and can’t find elsewhere with ease.

The mighty Rupert Murdoch might lack a sense of ethics but he has been consistently prescient and pragmatic in forecasting media trends and has put most of his internet sites — and particularly those for quality newspapers — behind strict paywalls.

What people are paying for is curation: the selection of issues, articles, writers and the process of editing, quality controlling and presenting them in an accessible way.

In a busy world, flooded with information alternatives, those who can afford to will increasingly pay for such time-saving services, even at a premium.

Publications that have worked in a certain way for generations are having to experiment boldly.   The positive side of this is that those that are imaginative and flexible, and those that offer the kind of quality journalism that people will pay for, should survive and — in the long run — even emerge with a healthy independence from advertising, and greater care for their readers.