Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Charging for the News

Last night's Daily Show included an interview with Walter Isaacson, author of the recent Time cover story "How to Save Your Newspaper."

Isaacson practically got laughed off the stage with some of his old-fashioned ideas, but they're actually ones that I've come back around to recently.

It all revolves around the idea that one of these days we're going to wake up and realize that professional journalism is a) crumbling before our eyes, and b) the foundation of a stable democracy. Don't believe me? Look! A big stone tablet at the Newseum in DC even says so:

Professional journalism is crumbling before our eyes because we refuse to pay for it. I refuse to pay for it. Remember the New York Times's venture "TimesSelect?" When we all thought paying for just the op-eds and the sports section was ridiculous, and so they quit trying? And when was the last time you bought a print paper? Jon Stewart may have admitted that holding a print newspaper in your hand is just more satisfying, but I doubt that many people under the age of 25 would agree with him. It's these trends that are leading to the massive layoffs at the Times, at the Globe, at the Tribune, at NPR...the list goes on.

Of course, citizen journalists are all the rage right now, from CNN's i-report to bloggers on every topic to people who digg or del.ici.ous or Share stories. I think those folks and these media add a lot to journalism that was lacking before. I just don't think that they're a viable replacement for professional, paid journalists.

That's what it comes down to: paying the guys to go to Baghdad (as Isaacson said), who spend years digging into Madoff's past, who cover the beleaguered state of our crumbling urban schools. Stuff that might be missed by the i-Reports, stuff that takes more hours in a day than a part-time blogger has to devote pro bono. Whether or not the journalists are paid through large, authoritative institutions, they need to be paid.

We need to start getting used to that idea, and we need to figure out how to pay them. (Because even I am not going to pretend that paper newspapers are going to make a comeback.)

Isaacson actually brought up a good idea that I've been thinking about for a while: microcharges. It's like iTunes--you can pay a tiny fee per article that you read online. So you don't need to pay $14.95 a month or whatever--you pay for how much you use, but in small enough increments that it doesn't hit you where it hurts each time you click.

Jon Stewart countered that news articles are different from music in that you're much less likely to go back and consume that content again and again, though. It's a good point. Is it enough to keep people from buying?

My hope is that we realize how valuable professional journalism is before it's gone altogether. My sense is that the crux moment is coming: will we recognize it and suck up the price when it's here?

Disagreement: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/opinion/10kinsley.html

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