Confidence Game

It’s not just Gillmor’s obsequious catchphrase, “readers know more than I do,” which may be true on some abstract level, sometimes, but on the important matters is often simply untrue. No reader—no community of readers—knew more about Standard Oil than Ida Tarbell, though, it is true, plenty of sources came out of the woodwork to help her along the way. Just so, “readers” could not be expected to know the sweep of the News of the World story and its implications. It’s not that Nick Davies is a genius, but he was working on the story for years, and after three decades in the business he’s well-sourced and may even—dare I say it?—have professional skills or other qualities that some readers, even academics, do not.

But it goes deeper than that.

FON thinkers put forward the idea of news as a commodity, describing it variously as abundant, undifferentiated, and of low value. As a consequence, FON thinking assumes, it won’t ever command much of anything in a market where the costs of distribution are basically zero.

If the argument were that the cost of replicating the news has crashed to zero, that’s one thing. But FON thinkers go further. They assert that news (as opposed to, say, writing about news) is a commodity by its nature.

As Shirky wrote (my emphasis):

One way to escape a commodity market is to offer something that isn’t a commodity. This has been the preferred advice of people committed to the re-invention of newspapers. It is a truism bordering on drinking game material that anyone advising newspapers will at some point say, “All you need to do is offer a product so relevant and valuable the consumer is willing to pay for it!”

This advice is well-meaning. It’s just not much help. The suggestion that newspapers should, in the future, create a digital product users are willing to pay for is merely a restatement of the problem, by way of admission that the current product does not pass that test. 

Paywalls, as actually implemented, have not accomplished this. They don’t expand revenue from the existing audience, they contract the audience to that subset willing to pay. Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them.

Set aside the fact that a “subset willing to pay” defines any business’s customer base, anywhere. Notice that Shirky presents the fact that newspapers didn’t charge for news (wonder who gave them that advice?) as the market’s verdict that they couldn’t.

Jarvis, too, describes a media landscape of undifferentiated abundance:

Is there any scarcity left in media? . . . Some argue that trust is scarce. Well I suppose that’s always true, but I now have more sources for news than I have ever had — not just my local newspaper, but The Washington PostThe Guardian, the BBC, bloggers I respect, and more. Is quality still scarce? Yes, of course, but the more content that is made, the more opportunities there are for more people to make good content.

But wherever Jarvis lives, unless it is in Westminster, London, chances are the BBC doesn’t cover it. And does it really follow that the “more content that is made,” the higher the likelihood that someone will, what, cover Pawtucket City Hall? Out of love, perhaps?

I covered Pawtucket City Hall, and you had to pay me.

Seeing news as a commodity, and a near valueless one (Paton above says its value is “about zero”), is a fundamental conceptual error, and a revealing one. A commodity is the same in Anniston, Alabama, as it is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Whatever local news is, it’s not that. 

As a consequence, FON thinkers have derided subscription pay walls as old-think by a generation that just doesn’t get it. Shirky and Jarvis, in particular, vocally dismissedThe Wall Street Journal’s early successful pay wall (a then-heretical, now-vindicated decision made by Dow Jones’s then-CEO Peter Kann), then the Financial Times’s successful pay wall (financial news, somehow, is not a commodity; it’s magic), and other spot successes as anomalies. Nor did they hesitate to point to the collapse of TimesSelect, The New York Times’s early experiment in 2005.

Jarvis, if anything, was even more certain. “The Times killed the service in 2007 and freed its content for a few simple reasons: first, it increased the audience to the paper’s site. . . . Second, the Times could make more money on the advertising shown to digital audiences. Third, . . . ” And so on.

But now look: the new Times paywall, a metered system allowing some free access, but charging for unlimited use, is working. After just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website, far ahead of projections. As Advertising Agenoted, combined with the 57,000 Kindle and Nook subscribers and the roughly 100,000 users whose digital access was sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln division, that meant the paper had monetized close to 400,000 online users. (Another roughly 765,000 print subscribers registered their accounts online.)

And if the argument was that only financial premium papers will be allowed to charge readers, the trend actually is now heading in the other direction, as more and more papers adopt some kind of content-pay system. Even dowdy Lee Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa-based newspaper chain, announced it was charging small amounts—$1 to $2.95 a month—for access to sites of papers in Wyoming and Montana. Rick Edmonds, the Poynter business blogger, now describes the major players who haven’tadopted a fee system—Gannett, McClatchy, and The Washington Post Company—as “holdouts.”

Is this a panacea? No, Shirky’s right. There isn’t one. Lee shares trade for under a buck. But as many, including Shirky himself elsewhere, have pointed out, news isn’t a commodity, but a “public good”—something that benefits everyone and, in the economic sense, something whose value doesn’t diminish no matter how many people use it (and whether they pay for it or not). Framing the news as a commodity and ultra-abundant makes it easier to give away. It also suggests a lack of understanding of what it takes to produce great beat reporting, let alone accountability journalism.

But we can see now that the news-as-cheap-commodity argument was all along an ideological one couched in economic terms. The idea that “information wants to be free” (a partial quote of Stewart Brand, who well understood information’s value) was a catechism, a rallying cry, voiced by a certain segment of the digital vanguard. Subscription services, “walls,” don’t fit into a networked vision. It’s worth pointing out that the commodity idea gained traction only because of the generalized collapse of news-business advertising models, a collapse that had nothing to do with editorial models. This isn’t to say that the content was good or not good, only that the collapsing ad model had nothing to do with it.

The problem with conceiving of news as a commodity is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what you think of it, that is surely what it will become. It may be okay for academics to sell this thesis, but shame on journalism executives for buying it.

In his role as provocateur, Jarvis also takes aim at the idea of storytelling. In a video talk at the #140 new-media conference, he adopted the persona of the news professional defending the idea of the story as an arrogant jerk worried about saving his job (emphasis his):

It’s my job as the storyteller to tell you the story, got it? That means I decide what the story is. I decide what goes in it. I decide what doesn’t go in it. Idecide what’s the beginning and the end because a story has to have a beginning and an end, so it fits in the hole I put it in. . . . When you question the form of a story, you’re trying to put me out of a job.

Part of Jarvis’s stock-in-trade is to throw bombs and then claim he was mischaracterized by critics, who, having been duly provoked, often do get a bit hot under the collar. After a thinking-out-loud post titled, “The Article as Luxury or Byproduct,” drew criticism, he later protested, in another post:

    • Dean Starkman
    • Dean Starkman is an award-winning journalist and media critic.  An editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and the magazine's Kingsford Capital Fellow, he is the author of "The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: the Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism," a sweeping critique of business news and i...

    • Dean Starkman's full bio »