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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.

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