And this slow suicide — as the great Molly Ivins called it — will continue unabated until the industry swallows hard and takes its product — every last newspaper — behind a paywall.
And if they don’t do that?
If not, then it is the day of the “citizen journalist,” which is to say, the day of the amateur. And American institutions, or for that matter the world as a whole, will not be held accountable by individuals doing this as a hobby.
Paywalls have nothing to do with what happened to the Times-Picayune. I saw a lot of carping last week about “how many people bitching about this on the Internet actually subscribe” and whatnot, as though commenting on Twitter was itself an act destructive to Noble Print. I saw a lot of whinging about how “people don’t read” anymore. I saw a lot of eulogizing about newspapers being a dying form, as if the Times-Picayune wasn’t profitable.
Make no mistake here: The Times-Picayune is not the victim of the Freedom Loving Internet or changing times or reading habits of the young’uns or anything other than a rapacious corporate desire for profit over the public good, and that’s a problem that afflicted journalism long before the Internet came into being. Speaking as someone who worked in newspapers when we went from cut-and-paste to actual computer layout, who saw two newspapers create their very first web sites, both before and after the same problem existed: The people in charge were greedy, venal, lazy and stupid, and liked playing with matches.
They liked fudging circulation numbers and screwing up distribution routes, undermining newsroom budgets when they weren’t outright stealing. They liked telling reporters there was no money for journalism while buying drinks for their parties. They liked firing people who had been in place too long, hiring young cheap college grads, and then telling the older folks still left that it was the younger folks’ fault for taking a job that was offered to them. They liked changing what was covered from one day to the next. They liked letting minimum-wagers “sell” their subscriptions and they liked delivering so inconsistently that even if people wanted the paper, they couldn’t find or get it.
And they could get away with all this because even with TV and radio, they were still the dominant form, and there was enough money to cover up all but the most catastrophic of their mistakes. When the dot-com bubble burst and American manufacturing went into a death spiral and the economy started to tank, the money started to dry up and people started seeing fire where before there’d only been smoke.
The idea of that “industry” (really a disparate collection of corporations that have no incentive to cooperate in any way and in fact share little beyond a medium) “swallowing hard” and coming to one conclusion about improving itself is impractical at best, even if you believe paywalls are the answer. Any smart companies will let the stupid, greedy ones burn, and paywalls or no, the stupid greedy ones will end up as charcoal because this isn’t about form, it’s about managing money and mission, and these people suck at that and have no incentive to change.What incentive is there, when you can gut a company and walk away with millions?
While that fire’s raging, where does that leave those of us who do care about journalism, as I have no doubt Simon does, deeply? It leaves us with people wanting to do journalism. To hold institutions to account. To do what freelance reporters and “amateurs” — like newspaper publishers always are before they buy presses and file incorporation papers — have always done, which is to find out something that’s going wrong and tell as many people as possible.
What do they do? Some of them will publish online. Some of them will form nonprofit collectives and fundraise from those who do care about supporting this kind of work. Some of them will continue to work for the profitable papers that aren’t run by stupid hacks. Some of them will freelance and have day jobs, as many people who call themselves journalists already do. Some of them will start their own newspapers, which by the way wouldn’t be the worst idea for a well-connected, successful reporter and producer to do in New Orleans.
Knocking those people as hobbyists before they’ve made their bones, and telling them they have no chance of accomplishing their mission, is not helpful to them and it’s not helpful to journalism. Internet triumphalism is tiresome, yes, but so is Internet fatalism, and it’s hard not to take this sort of thing personally when you’re out there busting your ass online BECAUSE nobody in print gave a shit what you were trying to do, back when it was rude to point out that the war on terror was bullshit.
Let’s be clear about this: When we have fights about amateurs versus professionals, when we have fights about print versus online, about paywalls that make pennies, about subscriptions instead of ads, about form and function instead of mission and management, we are having the fight the people in charge want us to have while they run away with the piggy bank.
We are letting the arsonists decide who gets to be on the fire brigade.