Frontline DiscussionLast night I took myself off to the Frontline Club, for a discussion on digital media, mobiles and paywalls – based on the question “Will Apple save media?”. All relevant, cool and topical stuff. However, I should have known that the presence of Gurtej Sandhu, digital director of Times newspapers there, this was going to turn into a discussion primarily about paywalls – and indeed it did, despite the presence of several iPads in the room. The News International paywalls have become the discursive equivalent of black holes – bending all conversation out of shape around them…

I found the disconnect between the representatives of our nationals newspapers there – Sandhu and Marybeth Christie, head of product development at FT.com – and the audience was marked. Every time they were questioned about “the conversation” – which is essentially social media shorthand for the vast web of interlinks stories, blogs, tweets and the like around a particular topic – Sandhu tended to reply with comments about being on as many platforms as possible, and Christie came very close, at chair Steve Hewlett’s prompting, to equating social sharing with theft. The message seemed to be clear – the majority of the audience, and the remaining two panelists, thought that the social web was important, the national newspaper representative did not.

William Owen of Made by Many identifies three fallacies he sees in national newspaper thinking, based on what he heard at the event. I think he’s absolutely spot on – in fact, I think all three are extensions of the national newspaper-centric thinking I highlighted earlier in the week. I challenged Sandhu on this, suggesting that he assertion that we were all in an experimental phase around paying for content was nonsense. After all, RBI has been doing it for 15 years, His reply implied that there was something different going on here because they’re the first general interest newspaper to follow that route. But really, does the source of the content matter that much? Doesn’t each piece of content stand on fall on its own amongst the web of information out there?

The closer we get to The Times paywall experiment, the more excited I get about it. We have two very different sets of assumptions amongst publishers, and those interested in publishing, about where the value lies in journalism. This experiment will, over time, expose which assumptions have the deeper flaws in them.

Patrick Smith has posted a write-up of the event, as well as a video of the whole thing over on the Frontline Club blog.