Kvetch of the Week: Money for nothing, journalism for free

All it takes for the journosphere to swing into high bludgeon is for a newspaper crab to suggest that online readers of news sites should have to pay something — anything — to click.

David Carr of the New York Times was this week’s very convenient whipping boy for advocating an iTunes-style system of payment per story.

In poured the counterpoints, if not the scorn. No, that ain’t working.

In my experience at a general-interest news site, this approach didn’t yield much in the way of revenue. Premium content behind a paywall included popular columnists, shielding them from the greater conversation on the Web. The possibility of gaining more revenue in advertising on the free site ended that experiment.

Ditto for a similar practice at the New York Times, which required readers to pay for Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, etc. Now I splurged on this, plunking down the $39.95 a year for the service, which I thought was a good value given that subscribers also got access to the Times’ vast Web archive. But this endeavor, too, was halted. Why cut off your most high-profile bylines from the online public?

Specialty and business content online can command subscriptions — most notably the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, the Street & Smith’s business publications, including a must-read in my field, the Sports Business Journal. But in each case, there is free content available on those sites.

The strongest charge against Carr’s reasoning is that folks like him just don’t get the Web. What’s more, he doesn’t want to seem to engage in it:

“I can’t fault him for his beliefs. He’s probably seeing the world from the point of view of the New York Times. But the Times doesn’t represent the predominant model any more. It — with the Washington Post, NPR, Wall Street Journal and USA Today — are in their own class. They’re much larger, have a bigger financial cushion, and are able to move much more slowly. They’ve made significant progress toward Webworld, and they have many good people within their organizations pushing them. But they’ll end up immersed in Webworld, too, someday.

“One telling example of the world in which Mr. Carr lives: although you can comment on some NYT articles, you can’t comment on Mr. Carr’s.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s Kvetch of the Week-winning material. Especially that last point. But like much of the debate over whether readers should “pay” for the news, it misses an essential point: How to pay the news-gatherers?

Thankfully, the Tacoma News-Tribune has attempted to raise this issue in an unsigned editorial, observing as a nearby rival publication appears to be in its death throes:

“If the P-I folds, many of its reporters won’t be able to find reporting jobs online – at least not the kind of jobs that can feed families, pay mortgages and send children to college. They’ll go into other lines of work, such as teaching or public relations. . . .

“Right now, the Internet does not fill the gap. Its countless commentators don’t provide news; they recycle it. Many of its independent reporters are part-timers on a shoestring budget who lack the time, means or expertise to ferret out the big stories a good newsroom can produce.”

This needs to be said, loudly and repeatedly, above the din of declarations as sure, we’ll still pay for investigative journalism, no problem and glory days appear be here — finally — for financing online news.

Perhaps it’s just my situation, but until there are more concrete ideas instead of breezy assumptions or gleeful triumphalism, I’m going to curb my enthusiasm.


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