a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Who pays for the news?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 6th, 2006

David Corn summarizes his comments to prospective journalism students at a Center for American Progress seminar:

The problem is, I told the students, that people their age do not want to pay for information. So the long-term question for them is, who’s gonna pay you to be a journalist in the years ahead? If people are not willing to buy information, it will be hard to earn money providing information.

Oh, I noted that being a journalist is great. It gives you license to be a busybody and call people up and ask all sorts of questions. And it’s a jazz to find out stuff before other people and disseminate it. But I do believe that for all the wonderfulness of the Internet, it has also allowed bad (and cheap) information to compete more efficiently with good (and expensive to produce) information. That’s a dynamic that may not shift for a while and that has severe ramifications for those who want to produce good journalism and those who want to read it.

At the risk of a cheap shot, complaints about bad information crowding out good from someone who joined PajamasMedia? But let’s focus on “cheap”– information, that is. Corn obviously knows more about the media business than I do, and he’s right that the Washington Post showing good journalists like Thomas Edsall the door is a sad sign of the times.

Is that all that’s going on, though? My take on Corn’s own status is that the same mixed blessing called the Internet has brought him some well-deserved recognition and (I’m guessing) some amount of direct and indirect income as he hawks his book and other paying propositions and beats the bushes for more. Hence, no doubt, the decision to join up with the otherwise execrable PajamasMedia — and more power to him.

Meanwhile, who exactly is paying for what exactly with the kind of news coverage we get from the New York Times, the Washington Post, etcetera? At the risk of being unfair yet again, these icons of journalism have repeatedly treated us to reporters and editors apparently more willing to reprint their subjects’ lies than their own legitimate stories (at least until they’re ready to publish the book).

Is it the circulation itself, the advertising revenues, or the sideline business opportunities that motivate the owners and managers of these papers? It doesn’t seem to be the love of pure journalism, at any rate. In the long run, that backfires, as news customers come to suspect that these companies are not so much in the business of finding the truth as they are in the business of managing lies for their allies, be they business, political, or social.

So be it. The Times and the Post can occupy a shrinking but no doubt lucrative niche as stenographers to power, with Cohens, Broders, Woodwards, and Millers ready to serve. Readers less interested in that will demand the output of reporters and writers like Corn, Edsall, Hersh, Dionne and others. And maybe new institutions (like the Center for American Progress, perhaps?) will provide them with new publications and the framework of an honest, upfront political and journalistic philosophy rather than the pseudo-balanced, hand-in-glove attitudes we see today.

It’s something I would pay for. In fact, it’s something I already do pay for, via a selection of magazine subscriptions. If I could believe that a daily newspaper would not sit on a story like the NSA scandal, or become a fashion accessory to Woodwardian hagiographies, I’d be very interested in subscribing to it. Maybe that’s unusual — but maybe it wouldn’t be if there were more newspapers worth subscribing to.

As it is, I feel justified in often not paying up for my news consumption because I think it’s just what I’m being allowed to see — not all there is to see. That’s not journalism, it’s PR. Why should I pay for that?

EDIT, 6/22: “the media business” for “this” — that’s what I meant, but it might not have looked that way.

2 Responses to “Who pays for the news?”

  1. eRobin Says:

    Ah, you’re brilliant. What a beautiful post.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Aw, shucks, Robin, you’re makin’ me blush here. (But thanks for the link!)

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