January 17th, 2009 17:47 EST
What's the Going Rate for Quality Journalism?
The front page of a newspaper or the home page of a web site is a showcase, and like all showcases it`s not a guarantor of what is most significant. It offers up either what`s hot or what the editors would like to be hot. But ideas that shape a century often languish in the back of the room, or the back of the book as they used to say when nobody could imagine a generation of digerati.
In Monday`s New York Times David Carr, who keeps a sharp eye on the media, wrote a column entitled Let`s Invent an iTunes for News. " It was positioned, as Carr`s column usually is, on the front page of the business section, not exactly an editorial fanfare. The ideas he discussed were probably more far-reaching than anything else in The Times that day, but they didn`t go far enough.
Mr. Carr made the point that Apple has been successful in selling content, namely music, and that`s news, simply because it has proven so difficult to make money on web content. He went on to say that the hopes of print news organizations that advertisements down the side of a web page or flashing across the top or popping up would eventually support the kind of news gathering that print advertising no longer supports have proven forlorn. How many of us seriously entertained such hopes?
What is needed, he suggested, is a business model in which readers pay for web content. He pointed out that he subscribes to The Wall Street Journal online, so why shouldn`t other readers be conditioned to pay for content? Apple has proved it can be done, after all.
Good question, but unlikely to be answered without the broad-ranging discourse from which Mr. Carr`s column shied away.
In the 1980s the insatiable chains that were gobbling up newspapers and gutting their news operations were insisting that subscription revenues were negligible compared to advertising revenues. No one could foresee a time when that would change, but now Mr. Carr and others are talking about it. Of course they are "we`re in a recession, after all. Advertising is dropping like pebbles in a well. In fact, an obese America is even wondering aloud if career consumerism has a future.
It was the 1980s kind of thinking that gave us the docile and shabby press of the 1990s, the press that failed to describe the flat-out preposterousness of a national economy based on pounding nails, the press that pounded war drums for George Bush and Dick Cheney. Since the subscribers, the readers, didn`t matter as much as the advertisers, it was perfectly okay to succumb to advertising pressure and fail to report predatory lending practices and unsustainable development. But now that the sound of nails and saws and backing trucks has subsided, the subscribers should pay for decent journalism. You know, the kind they haven`t been getting for more than two decades, because the first thing a new owner does to maximize profit is reduce the size and scope of the news operation.
Would that change if subscribers were to pay for content? Don`t hold your breath. But even if subscribers were willing to pay, they have been able for years now to build their own daily newspaper on their Google and Yahoo home pages, reading The Independent from the United Kingdom, Asahi Shimbun from Japan, Le Monde from France, and literally hundreds of other publications. Will they forfeit all that to subscribe to one or two news organizations?
Maybe, But it will take some masterful persuasion, and it will probably mean corrupting more politicians by buying their support for a limited-access web in which media giants like Time Warner and Comcast get to charge us for access to the web by choosing an array of price packages. Are we going to like that? Are we going to like the death of the liberating idea of net neutrality?
Maybe we can be persuaded to settle for less. After all, our access to ideas about news is controlled by people like Mr. Carr and his editors, isn`t it? And they rarely bother to tell us, just as a matter of background, that they now want to cash in on the Internet created by our tax money.
If the people were willing to pay for news content on the web, would they get better journalism? Not if one goes by the record of the last two decades. What they will get, going by that record, is more commercial censorship, more manipulation of opinion by omission, more trivialization, and more disinformation about what the people really want as opposed to what the media giants want them to want.
The conversation we really need to have is how to pay for decent journalism while at the same time discouraging profit-takers from fobbing off crap on us in the name of journalism. The largest question we can and should frame is how will we assure ourselves of a fourth estate as vigorous and independent as the fourth estate the founders deemed indispensable to the republic?
Mr. Carr`s contention that news gathering is expensive is inarguable, but there is nothing in our recent free-market experience to suggest that news organizations will give us anything better than what we`re getting if we pay for web content. In fact, there is every indication that they will give us less while calling it more. Isn`t that exactly what cable news is doing today "giving us overheated malarkey and calling it news, giving us divisive rant and calling it discourse?
The very subject areas into which Mr. Carr did not choose to venture suggest that the media will not improve or even maintain the news product if we pay for web content. They will continue to ignore the vital interests of the readers and viewers, as they have for many years. If that were not so, the subprime mortgage crisis would not have caught us off guard.
The news media are now saying it defies credulity that the Securities and Exchange Commission did nothing about Bernard L. Madoff`s catastrophic scam even though the SEC had been tipped off about it. Well, it defies credulity that the news organizations sat on their collective duff throughout the great housing bubble, and they`re less than clean in their jeremiads about the SEC.
Just the other day a liberal commentator on satellite radio said, We gotta start poundin` those nails again if we want to revive the American economy. This is discourse? This is thought? Don`t we need a many-faceted, highly diversified economy to thrive? Don`t we need new industries and better pay? Do we really want to put all our eggs in a developer`s basket again? Can an ownership society, as George W. Bush put it, be reconciled with sensible land and water use? Are McMansions an inalienable right? Do we want an economy tied inextricably to the housing market? Isn`t this a theory that should be examined from every angle?
Yes, Mr. Carr`s column was valuable as far as it went, but it didn`t go nearly far enough. It lacked what discussion of the housing bubble always lacked, a reexamination of its fundamentals. We have no reason to trust big media to give us responsible journalism. So before we start a national discourse on how to finance web journalism "if indeed we can whomp up such a discourse "let`s set the record straight about the kind of journalism we`ve been getting.