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Initiating a Culture of Compensation

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Modern day journalism school is a lot like the Make-A-Wish Foundation: for a steep price, ill-fated youngsters earn the company of industry luminaries, who recount their sterling careers — the very calling to which these kids would aspire were their futures not terminally stricken — while struggling to conceal the sad truth from (and about) their audience.

Fifteen years ago, journalism schools themselves were thought to be malignant (see "J School Ate My Brain" by Michael Lewis in a 1993 edition of the New Republic). Today, the tumor has metastasized and infected the entire profession. Any way you look at it — left or right, fair or balanced, in the Blogosphere or on the Op-ed pages — the consensus is clear: journalism as we know it is not long for this world.

Figuring that they can't write themselves out of this dilemma, journalists have dropped the pen and polished the crystal ball. They come to us daily — I'm a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the butt of Mr. Lewis' long-form joke — with their predictions and prognostications, as if some sliver of hope might redeem our moribund futures. And for those of you who skipped out on the $40,000 bill (i.e. full tuition at Columbia), the pain can be — and has been — suffered vicariously all across the media, new and old.

Among other suggestions, David Carr imagined an iTunes for news; Jack Shafer said no way (and trashed the Kindle); the CIO of Yale said newspapers should become foundations; Steve Coll agreed; Jack Shafer said no way; Walter Isaacson championed micropayments; Michael Kinsley said no way; and a whole bunch of people weighed in at the New York Times. And those are just the high points.

In sifting through these myriad commentaries, what's left of my half-eaten brain has reached a conclusion — or better yet, a no-brainer — shared by none other than Rupert Murdoch: that major news outlets like the New York Times should start charging online subscription fees for access to their websites — the primary access point for most consumers of news today.

Despite Andrew Sullivan's assertion that web subscriptions are never going to work, Henry Blodget has offered a fairly comprehensive plan for saving the Times that includes, among other suggestions, charging an online fee. He estimates that with a hybrid payment model, like that used by the Wall Street Journal, web traffic to NYTimes.com might initially fall by 50 percent; and if all content were protected behind a paid firewall, as much as 90 percent.

Are newsreaders really that greedy? Is it really so hard, as David Carr writes, to convince "the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspaper sites that it's time to pay up"?

For one thing, Blodget's numbers err on the side of extreme caution. With something close to 17 million unique visitors to the website in January, the Times is an online juggernaut. To say that 15 million of those users would rather go elsewhere than pay a small fee strikes me as unlikely. But I also think his doomsday scenarios are mismatched. If the Times Select experiment, in which users had to pay for opinions or archives, showed us anything, it was that partial paid content scares readers away. For the whole shebang — all or nothing — I'm willing to bet that a message like this could convince customers to pay up:

Dear Reader,

We are a company of professionals who toil each day to provide an essential service to the country and the world: the news. For a long time, we operated under the illusion that the Internet might become an oasis of content served gratis, where tiny advertisements on the side of your screen for penis enlargement or class reunions could sustain our modest business. As the years went by, this pipe dream rang hollow, and today we will be selling our newspaper online--the very same content you paid for year in and year out for home delivery--for a small fee: $20 per month, or $100 for the full year.

Respectfully,

Pinch & Punch

And that would be that. You pony up the fee — really, just the cost of a Valentine's Day dinner — for a full year of news, or you "x" out of the window. Those who already subscribe to the paper version would be privy to the web edition.

So, you say, I'll circumvent the miserly Times and hit the blogosphere for my morning news, be it Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, or Slate. But now you'd find the many Times articles to which these blogs link similarly affixed with the same urgent plea: please pay us for our (linked) content!

In the Daily Beast in particular, Tina Brown has built an entire business around online bricolage. The Beast's main attraction — unabashedly advertised as the "Cheat Sheet" — is an agglomeration of major news reports, recapitulated in snarky prose. Because the Times has stubbornly (and inimically) refused to protect its hard-earned content, sites like the Beast or The Week can rummage through full papers, take the wheat, and leave the chaff — all without paying a dime.

As Isaacson has observed (somewhat ironically on the Huffington Post), traditional outlets have "put all of their content, plus a whole lot of blogs and whistles, onto their websites for free." Sites like HuffPo, meanwhile, are reaping the advertising benefits, even though, as Isaacson points out, they "did not actually create content, especially not journalistic reporting, but instead piggybacked on it."

Ergo, another no-brainer for the Gray Lady: stop giving out reported content like Thanksgiving turkeys, and start charging third parties for linked content. Sure, there's a whole case to be hashed out before the Supreme Court over fair use, but at the end of the day, blogs should have no more right to copy and paste from the Times than I have to pilfer scenes from Hollywood movies and sell them off as a highlights reel.

(To put the problem in perspective: the Times alone pays $3 million every year to support a bureau in Baghdad; shouldn't online outfits remunerate news outlets for this critical--and critically dangerous--reportage?)

Now, it's argued that readers will spurn a fee-based system. They'll bypass the firewall with digital trickery, or else turn to alternative news sources. Herein lies a fundamental misunderstanding of American consumption in the digital era. When the selfsame product is easily accessible for free (i.e. full music albums on Napster), the rational shopper will opt for the free choice. That's just common sense. But when an industry leader (i.e. Apple) offers a reasonably priced and quality-assured platform for purchasing that same product, Americans will buy in.

It's amazing how quickly the cultural paradigm can shift. In the days of Napster and Kazaa, the music industry devolved into digital speakeasies, where surreptitious (and ultimately illicit) dealings were very much in vogue. But today, 70 percent of 9- to 14-year-olds--a.k.a. tweens, the next generation online--are using legal means to download music.

All the divination and bloviation (to use a Frank Rich word) in the world won't alter an irreducible truth: "Free," in the trenchant words of one analyst, "is not a business model." Those who advocate micropayments would use a scalpel where an axe is needed; and those who want to endow news would only reify the pernicious notion that news should be free. Just like Harvard can dictate policy in higher education by accepting A.P. scores or eliminating early decision, so too could the Times usher in a culture of compensation as the industry standard.

The future of journalism does not turn on the means of production. However consumed, good news involves good reporting, good writing, and good editing. Whether that product is scrolled down a BlackBerry screen or spread across the kitchen table is irrelevant to the cost; no one would suggest that a book read on a Kindle should be free, and thanks to iTunes, few people expect a record to cost less on an iPod than a CD.

Giving away news for free was a terrible folly, whose consequences have been rehearsed ad nauseam. Blogs, editorials, editorial observers, lectures and lamentations have yielded a concatenation of solutions as protracted as it is inconclusive. It's time now to move on and cough up.

Inundated as we are with bad news about the news, I question the logic of J-school every day. But is it so crazy to pay for an education in an established profession? No, what's crazy is when that profession decides to eschew profits because of some insane notion that information, like love in the '60s, ought to be free. Why journalists have decided that compensation is beneath them, I don't know; but until that changes, I want my money back.