Monday, August 18, 2008

Can I Have Four Beers?

Over on Poynter Online, Amy Gahran talks about Leonard Witt's question on PJNet, which was evidently sparked by a discussion panel. I'm pretty sure that by linking to Amy's post that links to Leonard's post which is essentially from another discussion, I'm going to unleash some journalistic seventh circle of hell, but here goes. Witt's question?
"Here, I believe, is the ultimate ethical question: If the American public does not want to pay for journalism -- in other words, doesn't find value in what we as journalists do -- should we simply stop doing it?"
Gahran and I pretty much agree - this question operates under the fallacy that subscribers (aka, the public) pay for their journalism. Advertisers pay for the production of the newspaper - the subscriptions just barely pay for the costs to deliver the product. True, without subscribers or some kind of definitive way to quantify how much of the public is reading your product, you can't get many advertisers, but strictly speaking, the American public does not pay for its journalism - nor has it ever, really. Not to mention, journalism does not have a static delivery system - by that meaning it is tied to one medium to get delivered. Maybe in days past, sure, but nowadays, people can get their information fix from a variety of places - television, newspaper, radio, the Internet - and Witt's question, I think, assumes that the only real way to receive that information is through the traditional print. And that may be a large part of the reason we see newspapers stuck in such a quagmire. It's not just, as I've opined before, that the industry failed largely to plan for the Internet and become early adopters of the tool - it's wholesale snobbery and head-in-the-sandedness that allows them to continue to think that the journalistic world is flat, and it drops off sharply at its newspaper-bereft edges. Information (think town criers of days of old) has a long and storied tradition of being free - hence the public's aversion to paying for it. True, that town crier still had to be paid, but it wasn't a townsperson that walked up and tossed a shilling at him, either. As Gahran said, the better questions are:
How can society continue to receive the benefits of journalism, given the current media environment? Also, which players might provide those benefits, and how?
And I agree - it won't come solely from traditional sources. As information and sourcing becomes easier and easier thanks to the Internet, the American public will have even more choices for their journalism. And likely none of them will require payment before reading.