What is the point of RTE's news website?
What is its aim? Why was it created? I ask these questions as it is RTE's commercial spin-offs, more than any other entity, that are behind the demise of newspapers' potential survival. Basically, as long as RTE puts up a news and sport website, it is very, very difficult for private sector rivals to create any kind of business model.I should qualify this statement with two caveats.
(i) As a punter, I like RTE's website. I use it fairly regularly. I'm delighted that there is a free, well-resourced, authoritative news and sport website up there for me to look at.
(ii) I also do not think that private sector media institutions have any 'right' to exist, any more than another private sector entity. Mostly, the private sector media exists to make money. For all the fine words about ethics and standards, that takes precedence. So I shed no tears for the 'rights' of private sector newspapers, including my own.
That being said, we all need to re-examine what it is we want from a free media. do we want less newspapers, less media organisations, less diversity?
If the answer is yes, I have no problem with that. It is an entirely fair position. Arguably, there are far too many newspapers at present. In Ireland, for example, we have nine national daily titles. Nine! For a population of four million, that's probably too many.
However, we need to get this out in the open. And know this: the fewer newspapers there are, the more powerful the remaining few become. For all the bumbling and crass stories that newspapers -- especially tabloids -- produce, there is a balance struck in the competition between them.
For all the titles he owns, Tony O'Reilly is nowhere near as powerful in Ireland as Rupert Murdoch is in Britain or Silvio Berlusconi is in Italy. That is largely down to the diversity of the press and the number of titles.But back to RTE.ie. Many people might assume that RTE's website is part of the broadcaster, funded by the licence fee. It is not. It is, in fact, a commercial spin-off of RTE. In essence, it is little difference from a private company that has won a franchise to use RTE's brand.
Why is that significant?
Because it creates a crucial difference between a public service broadcasting ethic, which is the purpose of RTE and the BBC, and just another private company trying to make as much money as it can. RTE's website arguably falls into the latter category.
What's wrong with that, you might ask?
This: the website is constantly promoted on RTE news bulletins, TV and radio shows. If you were to put an advertising value on the plugs that the commercial, non-public service RTE website gets, it would surely run into the tens of millions, annually. What is more, no other media website would be allowed even to pitch their website being plugged on the Nine O'Clock News.
Then there is the issue of the vast resources given -- for free -- to this private sector, commercial spin-off.
The RTE website runs stories, video clips and bulletins created by the licence-fee resourced public service wing of RTE. It takes some €300,000 of your licence-fee money to pay Ryan Tubridy's salary. And millions more for the news staff. This commercial entity -- RTE's website -- gets all of it for free. The vast sums that are required to fund a correspondent going to Haiti (amounts beyond the wildest dreams of any private sector entity) are written off as freebies to RTE's site.Remember: the website is not part of RTE's public service; it is a commercial spin-off, created to make money. Keep that in mind the whole time.
At this point, you're probably thinking: yeah, yeah, we see your point. But who cares? At least we're getting some decent quality stuff online for free…
I can understand that. And, as a punter, I think it's a big benefit. But surely RTE needs to either:
(a) Subsume the website into its main organisation properly
(b) start asking the commercial spin-off website to pay for the astounding advertising and resources it currently gets for free, to the huge competitive disadvantage of other media organisations.
I would be happy with either outcome. However, I do not think that there is a hope hell of either happening.
One of the reasons that options (a) won't happen is that RTE would have to start paying online staff similar rates as the offline radio and television staff. At present, RTE, like some other large media institutions, classifies this work on its website as 'kind of' journalists. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people read and see their work, they 'only' work for the interweb product. Which, as I have pointed out, is not 'really' RTE. It's the commercial spin-off thingy.If you asked most people, they would probably say that they imagine that the website is "part of RTE". In other words, it is a public service, run for the benefit of the country. If it were a public service, run for the benefit of the country, no private sector could have any complaints. But it is not. Sooner or later, this is going to become an issue.