Civil Liberties

"The time is ripe for rethinking the First Amendment as a positive call for non-market support of a meaningful journalism"


Linking to my anti-newspaper-bailout rant from last week, the L.A. journalist Gary Scott, who produces for the great public radio interviewer Warren Olney, opined that "several straw men were harmed in the writing of this column." Maybe! But perhaps that's just because I neglected to link to this howler of a Monroe Price piece in the Huffington Post–a publication that, according to The Atlantic's Michael Hirschorn, "is the prototype for the future of journalism"–arguing for a federal "News and Information Democracy Act of 2011." The whys and wherefores of our coming newspaper bailout:

The case for legislation is the relatively easy part: our idea of a democratic society depends on the notion of informed voters, and of a press that can serve as a watchdog and critic of power. The emerged industrial structure that has (arguably) allowed us to have a democracy-supporting media is being rapidly eviscerated. […]

So the time is ripe for rethinking the First Amendment as a positive call for non-market support of a meaningful journalism. […]

It looks like we're going through a painful transition from analogue to digital newspapers, from print to Internet. A comprehensive piece of legislation…could help lubricate the transition, determine whether there are common or collective approaches that would make the transition smoother, and possibly provide some transition support and supplement the working of "the market" with a sense of what the path should be from here to there.

Here's an example: bring down the price of the Kindle or Sony Reader to under $25 and make the devices universal delivery systems for local and national papers; have each Kindle default-programmed to receive one of several competing national digital papers and one local paper, building in an annual fee for a newspaper fund that is billed to the holder of the low-cost or free apparatus.

Federal legislation could establish…a Center for Journalism and Citizenship. It could provide technical assistance (and perhaps funding) for state and local efforts to prop up existing journalistic enterprises or to encourage web-based substitutes.

It goes on (and on) from there, including "a small tax on Internet usage that would go into a fund to support journalism," tax deductions for newspaper subs, and offering "incentives to advertisers who place their business in digital papers that meet a minimum standard in terms of informing the public." Good thing Monroe Price isn't teaching journalism and law to impressionable young kids!

In other man-bites-straw news, the entertaining New York Times media writer David Carr, who I almost never pay for the pleasure of reading, openly pleads today for some business smartie to somehow "reverse the broad expectation that information, including content assembled and produced by professionals, should be free." In the process of blaming the readers, Carr casually commits a sin seen almost daily in bigshot newspapers, but hardly anywhere else in this hyperlinked world of ours. See if you can spot it:

Mr. Hirschorn is a smart guy—I used to work for him at a Web-based media site—and while there is nothing sacred about The New York Times, the experienced, and yes, expensive journalistic muscle it deploys on events big and small is not going to be replaced by a vanguard of unpaid content providers.

A Web-based media site??? Forget the awkward elocution for the moment: Would it really kill the New York Times to mention, I dunno, THAT SITE'S NAME??? I cannot tell you the number of times I've seen this happen in major newspapers, just concerning incidences that affect people I know. It is classic gatekeeper mentality–we can't just go around giving free advertisements to people on our precious pages! Even if it means giving readers less information in more words! Take this NYT story from last year, which was based entirely on a document that I provided them, for free. Here's how they put it: "The paper was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to The New York Times by Matt Welch, an author of a book about Mr. McCain." Hmmm … was it this book? (Looks interesting!) Maybe this one? How about this? Lots of books out there on ol' whatshisface.

Look, David Carr, and you other newspaper journalists I like a lot less, SAY IT!!! Just say the name! It's not just the question of an untipped hat; sometimes the name itself contains a crucial piece of otherwise missing context. As was the case with Michael Hirschorn.

Why? Because the subject of Carr's noodling (both in this column and another recent link-grabber) is the idea of training online readers to pay money for content they otherwise enjoy for free. And the "Web-based media site" at which Hirschorn employed David Carr FAILED PRECISELY BECAUSE OF THAT MODEL.

That site was called; it was going to be (in the words of co-founder and late-breaking web adopter Kurt Andersen), a "must read online site for members of the cultural elite," who were allegedly ready to pay literally hundreds of dollars a year for the privilege. After the 2000 dot-com crash. It was, in other words, a business model that was literally insane. "Subscription has to be a part of it," Hirschorn insisted in a jargon-flecked interview from the summer of 2000. By the summer of 2001 he was off peddling '80s nostalgia at VH1, and was on the inside.track to extinction. "Few readers were willing to kick up $200 to read the magazine," Media Life eulogized. "Initial projections called for 30,000 subscribers in the first year, but the numbers fell far short of that. According to some reports, paid subscribers never numbered more than 5,000." Relevant to a piece about online subscription models, no?