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Why buy the cow when I’m giving milk away for free? The problem of newspapers

In order to start this essay on the much discussed death of the newspaper, I have to talk about television. Bear with me for a second. The tv in question was”The Wire.”

Now we don’t watch a lot of tv (in fact, we don’t have reception, much less HBO), but several people recommended we see “The Wire” and the minute we did, we were hooked - we watched the first four seasons obsessively, and waited impatiently for the fifth to finally be released on DVD. When it finally was, we drank the episodes down and did something we’ve literally never done before - we actually watched the whole commentary at the end. Whenever people denigrate tv (and I do too) as a medium, I’m reminded that sometimes you can almost make up for a whole generation’s worth of crap in a matter of a few dozen hours of content.

But anyway, as we were watching the commentary on the fifth season, exploring the role of the newspaper in urban life and watching David Simon (who I’ve admired since I read the book the original (and very good) series ”Homicide” was based upon in the early 1990s), I was struck by his commentary on bloggers and their impact on struggles that newspapers are having. He said, with absolute contempt in his voice,

“How little respect do you have for yourself to give away your work for free.”

I have to say, I’ve been struck by this for a long time - by what it encapsulates and what it misses entirely as a metaphor for the problem that newspapers face.

It is, of course, the classic “why buy the cow when they are giving the milk away for free” question in all its complexity. And while the question turns out not to be very relevant on the subject of sex, it rather works for journalism. And it plays out both ways - the bloggers give it away for free, undermining, of course, those who want to sell the cow (professional journalists who want to be paid), but also creating what I would describe as the classic “blogger’s dilemma” in which a successful blogger, who started out using his or her spare time, now finds that they are imprisoned by their own success, with the blog demanding more time - but thus requiring them to make some money from it.

Of course, I can hardly be said not to have an opinion on this, although I’m hardly the purist that Ran Prieur is said to be - I’ve heard he actually refuses to make any money on his work, whereas I cheerfully accepted a full 4K for _Depletion and Abundance_, and charge a university .06 cents a page to reprint “The Ethics of Biofuels” (total remuneration $11.18 for ‘08). Still, I think it is fair to say that must be having some major crisis of self-respect, since I give most of my work away for free. Even when I charge for something (my book, classes), I try to ensure that a significant portion of the content is available on the blog for those who can’t spend the money. In fact, sin of sins, I’ve been known to give my material away for free to newspapers and magazines, who then make money off of them. My policy is that if I wrote it for free originally, you can have it for free now, as long as you give attribution and use it appropriately.

That said, I’m a big fan of print papers. I grew up in what a friend once called “The Church of the Holy Globe” - by the time I was 14 I purchased my own personal copy of the Boston Globe every morning and brought it with my to high school, and read it before classes started. Despite the habit of the Globe to overemphasize the importance of regional activities (if the planet were to explode tomorrow the headline would read “Many New Englanders Killed in Planetary Explosion”), the newspaper habit runs deep in me. I’m told that on my first day of kindergarten I announced I would now read the newspaper to my father. Even then I knew that the realm of public discourse - and my own entry into it, started with the newspaper.

I can even sympathize with the viewpoint expressed here.

Now we’re hearing the same thing about the blogosphere. “When enough bloggers take the leap, and start reporting on the statehouse, city council, courts, etc. firsthand, full-time, then the Big Media will take notice and the avalanche will begin,” Mr. Reynolds quotes another blogger as saying. If this avalanche ever occurs, a lot of bloggers will be found gasping for breath under piles of pure ennui. There is nothing more tedious than a public meeting.

After I got out of Rutgers, I began as a reporter at a newspaper in Ocean County, N.J. If the Toms River Regional Board of Education had not offered free coffee, I fear that I might have been found the next day curled up on the floor in the back of the room like Rip Van Winkle. As it was, I only made it through the endless stream of resolutions and speeches by employing trance-inducing techniques learned in my youth during religion class at St. Joseph’s school up the street.

The common thread here, whether the subject is foreign, national or local, is that the writer in question is performing a valuable task for the reader — one that no sane man would perform for free. He is assembling what in the business world is termed the “executive summary.” Anyone can duplicate a long and tedious report. And anyone can highlight one passage from that report and either praise or denounce it. But it takes both talent and willpower to analyze the report in its entirety and put it in a context comprehensible to the casual reader.

This highlights the real flaw in the thinking of those who herald the era of citizen journalism. They assume newspapers are going out of business because we aren’t doing what we in fact do amazingly well, which is to quickly analyze and report on complex public issues. The real reason they’re under pressure is much more mundane. The Internet can carry ads more cheaply, particularly help-wanted and automotive ads.

So if you want a car or a job, go to the Internet. But don’t expect that Web site to hire somebody to sit through town-council meetings and explain to you why your taxes will be going up. Soon, newspapers won’t be able to do it either.

I agree that the work of journalism is one that most people will probably not undertake without payment, and that a wildly democratic society full of bloggers will result in people having to sort through a whole lot of ill-written, inadequate crap (and yes, I know that some will cheerfully put me in that category as well, which seems only fair ;-)) among the gems. I rely heavily on newspaper writers for the material I get - I do not underestimate their value in summing things up and sorting things out - in fact, mine would be a poorer blog without them, and I genuinely hope that papers find ways to arrest their decline.

But let us not over-estimate the value of newspapers either. Let us note that often the guy writing the summary of the city council session isn’t that great an intellect either, and doesn’t do a lot of critical thinking - most of newspaper journalism (not all of it, but a majority) consists of people writing summaries - and not always very useful ones, rather than a serious investigation into whether those who were debating actually have other interests or will do what they say they will. Often the summary of what the meeting means for your taxes will not be based on the journalist’s deep critical understanding of what has happened, but on his rather superficial and limited understanding - or his deep comprehension will be undermined by crappy editing and what you can get away with saying without offending advertisers. I say this not to be mean, but because I think that journalists vary quite a bit, and some extremely successful ones, well, suck badly at their jobs.

If that were not the case, then one would have expected at least a few major figures in the mainstream newspaper media to actually have forseen the present set of crises, rather than overwhelmingly dismissing those who did warn about them. One would have expected any paper to have broken the coming financial collapse, the real peak oil story or even the fact that the IPCC radically understated climate impacts well before the bloggers, given their legions of paid and dedicated analysts. Except they didn’t. It was left to book authors, bloggers and internet sites to do that, for the most part (there are a couple of notable exceptions, but they are usually op ed writers, and very much exceptional). The journalists did the work of telling people what the reports *said* - and the bloggers, authors and the internet did the equally, maybe even more essential work of telling you what they *mean,* not just what one city council meant, but what the aggregate body of all the meetings, all the reports was saying. At times, the best investigative journalism does this too - but not often enough.

And may I speak for those who do things not for payment, but simply because they love them, or they are fascinated with them, or infuriated by them? Speaking as one of many people who began blogging not to compete with anyone, but because they simply care deeply about a subject, deeply enough that even the boring bits are fascinating, I can honestly say that there are things that no payday can ever fuel. If we must conceed Paul Mulshine’s fair point - that some things are boring and that it is worth spending money to make sure even the boring things get adequate coverage, can we also agree on the converse? That there are people in the world for whom, say, the impact of internal oil consumption on export figures is a passion, a fascination, enough to justify many hours of research that would never be done by a professional journalist, simply because no doing it would require the consent and interest of too many people up and down the editorial lines to justify the months and years of work.

There are people who will spend 10-15 hours a day reading every news media piece on the financial crisis, sorting out the relevant quotations and drawing emphasis, to reveal, ultimately a picture of a financial crisis that many people imagine was unpredictable but which was, simply, unimaginable to someone who lacked the passion and energy to connect all the disparate, and, sometimes enormously dry dots. They will do this for less than a burger-flipper might get paid, less than a journalist straight out of college, and they will get up and do it again the next day for the same shitty bits of money, because they want to know and they want other people to know.

There are people who are motivated by things that are not money - by doing good work, and adding to public discourse, by the praise of others with the same interests, by coming to coming to some version of a truth, by saving others from suffering or by the sheer joy of coming up with a new way of thinking about things. They get their training in a host of ways, and then, one morning, it occurs to them that they have something to say that no one will pay them to say, a contribution to make that they don’t need to be paid for, or perhaps they don’t need the money. And they make it.

And something heady and remarkable happens. Someone else reads the idea, and sends something back - maybe an affirmation, but perhaps an argument, a dismissal, or something they hadn’t thought of. And all of a sudden you are embroiled in a discussion, a debate, a conversation back and forth about what you know and what you don’t know. Or, perhaps most heady of all, some thing you say, some dot you connect, some idea you offer up helps someone else. And you see the possibilities - maybe it could happen again. Maybe you could teach someone else how to make that cake, or why they should use regression analysis. Maybe you could help someone understand why present day history has its roots in the enclosure acts or why Tolstoy ought to be read in these days, or how to fix your bike. Most importantly, you can enter into a conversation - one that may go back to medieval poets or enlightment political figures or to 19th century black nationalism or to the founding efficiency engineers and one that now garners the attention of the strangest and most wonderful and fascinating people.

Now some of this is not as noble as I make sound, and plenty of bloggers well…suck. Their contributions to the great narrative, will be, as they say, foul breath and foul wind. But then again, as Theodore Sturgeon put it, “90% of anything is crap, but the other 10% is worth dying for.” All of us know we’re probably in the 90%, but the chance, just the chance to be among the 10% once in a great while - or even once, when it counts, well, that’s something. There’s no shame in trying to get there while you get a paycheck, but I admit, I don’t grasp why anyone would think there was the tiniest bit of shame in going there for free. The pursuit of excellence, and that moment when you know you’ve done something really new, well, that’s its own reward and you can live on bread and beans for quite a while for that.

My claim is not that journalists don’t get these moments of delight and passion - and get paid. Nor do I claim that most bloggers don’t eventually have to come bang up against the question of how they value their time and make their income. But it is true that we cannot it is manifestly rely simply upon paid professionals to get us the relevant 10% of discourse that matters - the journeyman work of journalism is valuable, but it is not all that is needed.

The vast gaps that get filled by those with some time and some ideas - some of them bad, some of them good - suggest that the paid corps of journalists were never sufficient. Their ability to look at the aggregate of the news and see it outside the bounds of the world the paper already portrays is limited, just as the bloggers come to be limited by the lenses they choose to look at the world through. The bloggers need the newspapers, but it isn’t a one way need - the newspapers need us just as badly. They don’t just need us to sell papers on their own internet sites - they need us because we are driven by something other than the obligation to produce a half column of text that quotes the city council president on the impact of the new development on the water supply, and then gets a “balancing”quote by someone so that no one can tell for sure whether there will be any real impact. The newspapers need the person who is angry enough to actually sort through the competing claims - and the public needs them, the crazy person who isn’t yawning, who finds a secret delight in the machinations of their local politics, and in revealing it.

And there is something to be said for independence - the question needs to be asked - why is it that not one major urban newspaper understood the full implications of the triple economic/energy/ecologic crisis? Not one could tell their readers what they needed to know in a coherent way. So why is that? Is it possible the problem is that newspapers are torn between income streams - readers and advertisers. Their readers need to know the hardest parts of the truth - and their advertisers desperately need them to conceal those truths. Is it possible that the only people who can see some things are those who are not dependent on advertising, who can afford to tell their advertisers to go screw themselves if the reality and the advertised reality don’t match up (for the record, I find it hard to imagine Tom over at Sustainable Choice, my only direct advertiser, would ever attempt to influence my writing, but I stand ready and able to return the sun oven we bartered for the ad in the unlikely event he ever demands a retraction ;-).) Even if I’m being unfair here, is it possible that the demise of the newspaper has something to do with their deep unreliability in describing the reality of the past year?

It isn’t clear to me what the long term relationship between newspapers and bloggers will be, but my sense is that smart newspapers are going to have to begin to evolve one to stay in business. And of course, bloggers, who unformly struggle with the problem of success and whether to convert to the sort of people who now need someone to at least pay for the milk, are implicated in this discussion as well. It strikes me that many of the difficulties have been created by newspapers themselves, who see the relationship with bloggers as fundamentally oppositional, rather than interdependent. Sure, they give their writers a space to blog, and maybe even pay them for it. But the blogs are fundamentally secondary in most cases - perhaps that will need to change. Perhaps the newspapers will have to admit that they are as biased as the blogs are - only in this case, biased in favor of describing the world in terms of status quo, so much so that that they cannot anticipate fundamental shifts in what reality is.

But what I can say is this - sometimes what you give away for free gets you more in return than what you can sell. If there’s an answer, it won’t be in selling content, or in fighting the endless and foolish battle of blog vs. newspaper, it will be in finding a way around those battles. I don’t know what that way will be, only that it will shake out in complex and fascinating ways, and in the end, we’re going to have to find some way of covering the cost of the cow, even as some of us are handing out the free milk.


Editorial Notes: Interesting discussion at the original. Sharon's last blog entry wins the Headline-of-the-Year award: As the Year Turns, So Our Thoughts Turn…To Goat Sex. -BA

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