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What’s wrong with giving away journalism content?

May 18th, 2009 · 17 Comments

I haven’t bothered to wade too far into the fray over whether journalism is dead, as so many people have been filling up bandwidth and killing trees to opinionate on the issue.

But one issue I haven’t seen thrashed out is the argument I frequently read in (gasp – paper editions of ) journalism magazines or online is the one that says mainstream journalism did itself in by giving away its content for free on the Internet.

That’s an argument I don’t get, because newspapers and some magazines have been giving away their content for free, in paper form, for a very long time. Community newspapers, of course, and some magazines get delivered free to doorsteps all over this region. And the subscription fees that people pay for papers like the Vancouver Sun, the Globe or even the New York Times — even though they may seem hefty — do little more than cover the cost of paper and distribution.

The actual journalism has, for at least a century, been paid for by advertising. So what I find to be the mysterious question is whether that will continue. Lots of papers are now doing a great job of creating content that works for the web, with blogs, sound slides, video, and all kinds of other bits and pieces that take advantage of the web’s instantaneous and multi-media capabilities. And they’re getting millions of page views as a result.

But the advertisting to pay for all that is not following them there. Everyone in the business knows that the income and rates for web advertising don’t even begin to cover the costs of a serious news operation. I’m not sure why not, whether it’s because the print-ad sales reps at newspapers are telling them print is a better choice, whether advertisers don’t believe those page-view numbers, whether they believe them but think they’re all teenagers in Serbia looking for Britney Spears, or what, but something is not transmitting.

So the big issue is, who is going to support the serious dollars it takes to do real journalism? This blog, as many of you have noticed, is free of advertising or any other form of income-generating attachments. That’s because I can subsidize it with the income I get through my work connected to mainstream journalism — either teaching or writing. If those sources of journalism support were to dry up, it would become much more difficult for me to devote the same number of hours and research to the posts I put up here.

And if that happens everywhere, my friends, that means you will all be at the mercy of people who produce blogs because they have a cause they happen to care about.

I guess we would all survive, though at some cost. As we often discuss in the journalism-history class I teach, that would take us back about 150 years to the era of wildly partisan journalism in Canada, when newspapers were run almost exclusively by people either in favour of continuing the British system of colonial government as is or those wild-eyed fanatics pushing for Reform and responsible government. All the news of the day came from people on one side or the other, who told the story as they saw it.

Sometimes I think that’s what a large segment of the population wants and that’s why single-interest blogs are so popular — no one wants to hear the other point of view, they only want to hear people who agree with them. Then I think I’m being too pessimistic about the human race.

And those are my (free and worth every penny) thoughts that I share with you tonight, as we all watch the world unfold in ways we never could have imagined a couple of decades ago.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • spartikus

    The Talking Point Memo “empire” in an online only news site that is profitable (some say very profitable). This article on the business side of things may be of interest.

  • Living in the City

    All the news of the day came from people on one side or the other, who told the story as they saw it

    So essentially, we would have more of the same, just with the bias being slightly more blatant?

  • Rolf Auer

    It’s thanks to Internet advantages like your blog that news gets spread over a wider spectrum than it would otherwise.

  • Spartikus, at the top of the thread, is spot on with the reference to Mr. Marshall’s Talking Points Memo empire.

    And one of the interesting things about TPM is that it really harnesses the collective power of it’s readership….Witness how they divvied up all the document dumps around the US Attorney fiasco, went to work, and came up with real nuggets.

    That’s what lots of us really want Frances, to be involved in the process, which is another reason why we come here – you actually invite us to become involved, which is what, I think, separates the new , new (new squared?) journalism from the old new journalism, regardless it’s perceived biases.


    Oh, and with respect to the advertisers and those that pitch the space to them….they seem to have figured out that it’s not just teenagers in Serbia who are looking for the latest images, real or or imagined, of Ms. Spears…and therein, I would suggest, lies the rub, in that for the largest traffic sites at least, the demographics are kaput.


  • Interested Bystander


    1. I’m a local business owner who has contemplated online advertising, for example, on a local website named after a West Coast fish, but, having investigated how advertising is priced on that website, has opted to “just say no” for now. I am putting the same amout of time that I would put into online advertising into regularly updating my business’ web page and blog. This has worked out just fine so far, and seems extraordinarily cost-effective when compared with the cost of wee little graphic-designed banners and boxes, which no one, in my experience, clicks on or takes very seriously.

    2. I think the category of “ad rep” (Yellow Pages, etc., radio sales) is pretty defunct these days, another casualty of the net revolution. At the very least, I deeply resent how every ad rep I talks to assumes that they are the gatekeeper to the public finding out about my business. Some have gone as far as to claim that it’s hard to find my business with Google, so I should advertise with them to help “get my name out there.” If print and online advertising removed the cost of their (in my experience at least) lying or at least dramatically exaggerating sales reps’ commissions, more small businesses might consider advertising as something other than a species of Florida swamp land.

  • spartikus

    The funny thing is Josh Marshall recently had a paragraph of his plagiarized by NYT columnist Maureen Dowd. So I guess that begs the question: Who’s actually giving away content? 🙂

  • spartikus

    And the reverse of the coin: The saga of Pajamas Media.

  • blaffergassted

    Blame the librarians, who have been collecting and disseminating local newspaper stories for free for the better part of a century.

    Vancouver Sun stories dating back to 1987 can be uploaded using your VPL card, and the ProQuest / Canada Newstand search site.

    Globe and Mail stories date back to 1977.

  • TPM is what I’m dreaming Public Eye Online could be some day. Both are great sites – I just wish Sean had as many insiders with guts as Josh Marshall does.

  • Darcy McGee

    Journalism is no more dead than “Television” is as a medium. Poeple are still watching it they’re just doing it in different ways–sometimes dramatically so.

    The reality is that in the future, if you’d like to read the proceedings of THIS particular revolution they will be made available (for free) online.

  • fbula

    Thanks all for the interesting comments. In response to one higher up, obviously I love the blog as a medium, with its ability to create a group conversation. But I do wonder sometimes if people are deluded about how much anything has really changed in the MSM as the result of blogs or web comments — I see people getting to put up their remarks unfiltered, but I do not see a huge change in how much say people have over what gets in, what gets played prominently and who gets quoted.

  • Paul Willcocks

    People can’t be counted upon to pay for content. A generation has come to expect that, when they want to know something, a Google search will provide the answers, for free and instantly.
    But advertisers want either mass audiences – think Survivor – or targeted, like the fervent followers of Guns and Ammo mag.
    So who will pay for Gordon Hamilton to provide knowledgeable, insightful reporting on the B.C. forest industry for a mass audience? If not the MSM, as they say,
    And what will replace newspapers as a shared source of community information?
    I don’t think we’re really looking hard enough at all the social effects of the changing way information flows. Especially in terms of geographic community.

  • Darcy McGee

    > I do not see a huge change in how much say people have over what gets in,
    > what gets played prominently and who gets quoted.

    Depends on the location, in my experience. These types of places becomes cliquey after a while, and like most forms of fame celebrity tends to breed celebrity.

    We live in a culture where Paris Hilton is famous for being Paris Hilton, and that culture applies online as well: popular commenters at blogs tend to be featured and that breeds more popularity.

    The entire Gawker network is essentially a series of blogs by people who were popular at other blogs. They censor posts vigorously (don’t try to criticize their editorial) so the vast majority of them are fawning posts favourable to the editorial. io9 is a sci-fit blog, but the editor is so sex obsessed it might as well be something else.

    The online world reflects the evolution of our consumption of all media, particularly electronic forms.

    If Journalism is Dying, or there’s a “problem” with giving it away for free it’s the fact that the majority of readers these days don’t take the time (or perhaps have the critical thinking skillset anymore) to read articles of any length. Readers in many cases are unable to parse an essay for meaning, and anything longer than 140 characters is dismissed due to a lack of time.

    In a world where Google strives to make the sum of human achievement answerable in a single query, audiences have lost the patience for quality, well researched journalism.

    The problem isn’t with journalism, the problem is with the audience. Hopefully the two shall meet again, because I resent living in a world where either Bill O’Reilly or Oprah Winfrey are considered “journalists” and Lewis Lapham is relegated to the sidelines.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    “Readers in many cases are unable to parse an essay for meaning, and anything longer than 140 characters is dismissed due to a lack of time.”

    Darcy, are you saying no-one reads long, gassy posts or comments? Oh no!

  • Interesting thread.

    Journalism is thriving, in my (admittedly self-interested) opinion. This blog is one example. The, where I work, is another.

    Newspapers are withering, especially large papers in small cities. They have already lost their largest advertising categories (regional retail, which no longer exists; and classifieds, which have moved online), and they are now quite dependent on automotive advertising (no joy there). More importantly, the do-not-call registry is stripping away the method by which they have (lazily) propped up their circulation for the past decade or so. As both advt and circulation revenues decline, so does the investment in journalism. In my view, newspapers are merely in the slow and painful process of becoming like television news — useful during a crisis, but obviously cheap and shallow most of the rest of the time.

    This does not mean that investigative journalism or participatory journalism are either dead or dying. These forms will simply find ways to sustain themselves outside of the newspaper space. I believe that is already happening, as noted.

    But new business models are unlikely to mature until after the old models fail. Put another way, the news business is undergoing a revolution, not an evolution. Therein lies the discomfort.

  • Darcy McGee


    The Walrus struggles, does it not? I want it to live (though I think it has faded from its former glory.) I am, unfortunately, no so overburdened with cash that I can afford to publish it. My three year subscription fee will have to do.

    Paste Magazine…a very high quality publications…is seeking “donations” above and beyond subscriptions to weather plummeting revenues.

    Other examples exist. Meanwhile, “O”, the Oprah magazine, flies off of shelves.

    It seems that these days “journalism” is interpreted to mean the ability to file rapid fire blog posts and NOT to do investigative research.

    As long as audiences don’t care, there’s no incentive to change. The “market” will continue to serve its largest paying audience. As long as people are more interested in Paris (or Perez) Hilton than the state of their own democracy, I fear for our future.

  • Lash Larue

    Interesting to read Interested Bystander’s quotes. The effectiveness of ads on web pages has long been a subject of debate. I’ve never bought anything because of one of those ads in more than 10 years of using the ‘net.

    From what I’ve seen over the years, if you want to have income from a website, you have to offer content people will pay for and subscribe to. Sadly, the most effective user of that model is the porn industry…