Why for journalists, it’s showtime

I’ve been asked how my new job as a Kable analyst varies from my old one (on the next bank of desks) as a Guardian Professional Networks editor. There are more things in common than not, but the biggest difference is that there is much more performing required – teleconferences, face to face meetings and presentations to an audience are significant elements of what a Kable analyst does. But I don’t think this difference will last, as journalists will increasingly be going live too.

The music industry shows why. It is striking how much less music costs – in cash terms, never mind inflation – now than in the 1980s (when, with pocket money too tight to mention, such prices were particularly memorable). A newly-released single 7-inch vinyl record cost about £1.25 (including B-side, not greatly missed). Now, a single MP3 download costs 89p.

The internet has cut the cost of distributing recorded music, which doesn’t apply to live events: it may be a bit cheaper to sell tickets online, but the core costs (renting venues and hotel rooms, paying for staff and travel) are unaffected. However, Robert Levene, in Free ride: how the internet is destroying the culture business, makes other arguments. He believes that technology companies have used piracy (which they haven’t always fought too hard) and freedom of speech arguments to push media companies into lowering or removing the prices of their products. Customers are happy, the tech firms are happy because they use the cheap or free content to sell more hardware or advertising – but media companies then have to cut costs and quality. In music, there is an obvious solution: invest mainly in live shows, which cannot be digitised.

Beyond this, there are other reasons people seem to be more willing to pay for live events than digital products. Many of us spend most of our working lives, and much of our leisure time, staring at screens and dealing with computers via the likes of automated call centres. That makes human contact more valuable. Illogically, it also feels better to pay for a tangible product or service, such as a newspaper or access to a venue, than for a digital product, partly because you get (literally) some thing for your money, partly because the last few years have trained us to expect digital products to be a free extra to the costs of hardware and connection.

Regardless of the reasons, news organisations are responding to people’s willingness to pay for events. Last weekend saw the first Guardian Open Weekend, with individual events costing £10 and weekend passes – which sold out – costing £60, the equivalent of 50 copies of the weekday newspaper (which is of course available free online). The LSE’s Charlie Beckett, writing about the weekend in the Guardian, points out that it has made £1m from masterclass events in the last year. Guardian Healthcare Network recently held its first evening event on public health, free to attend but sponsored.

Private Eye last week had some fun with this “exciting journey from being a newspaper to being an online events company,” but the Guardian is hardly alone. The Times has similar journalist-live events, such as male lifestyle guru Robert Crampton’s quiz nights at Wilton’s music hall and talks by historian and columnist Ben Macintyre, which are tied into the paper’s Times+ subscription offer. The BBC presumably got something out of the £99 tickets for the Doctor Who convention this weekend in Cardiff. And even Private Eye has been known to hold the odd event.

The result is that more written word journalists are going to have to get used to speaking in public. Media firms can help by providing presentation training, but except for the most introverted hacks I think it is likely to be less of leap than they might expect. An interview is already a kind of limited-audience performance, requiring preparation and delivery.

And there are some thing that can work better live (in person or on the phone) than digitally. For example, having done both, my experience is that managing questions from a live audience is usually easier, and more enlightening for the audience, than the online equivalent. Live interaction tends to improve the standard of debate: it is much harder to be rude to someone you can see or hear, and it is fairly easy for a chairperson to ensure a steady flow of questions and comments. Online, comments tend to come in too slowly or too quickly, as there’s little way to regulate them. Live feedback is rich, through the likes of facial expressions and tone of voice, and near-instant. Online, you’re trading text, with none of the non-verbal communication that makes a conversation work.

There are things that can make online interaction work better, but I doubt it will ever beat being in the same room, or even on the same call. And if people will pay to see and hear information live when they won’t online – then follow the money.

Please note: these are my personal views rather than those of my employer, Guardian News and Media

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