With even the most storied American newspapers slipping into shock, journalists and publishers are finally engaged in a genuine debate about the wisdom of giving away for free the one service they provide better than anyone else–gathering, analyzing and disseminating news.
This month, Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch and New York Times executive editor Bill Keller have said they are considering ways to charge for what their news organizations produce, inviting scorn from Internet thinkers like Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen, who have elevated the ethos of free information to unreasonable heights.
But it’s not the Internet that has drained the lifeblood from newspapers: newspapers have opened their own veins, allowing news–the only thing they have of real value–to flow unimpeded into cyberspace.
The online information ecosystem that has grown up around their freely proffered content will barely notice if one–or even a half-dozen–major publications put their news behind subscription walls. The only way newspapers can save something of the franchise that took hundreds of years to create is to work together to stop giving away their content without charge.
Call it NOPEC–the Newspaper Owners Print and Electronic Cartel. Only when newspapers cast aside the ethos of free content can the revenues needed to support serious journalism at home and abroad return.
Newspapers still drive the news cycle and do the vast majority of the disciplined, shoe-leather reporting that separates journalism from mere opinion. Newspaper journalism is shamelessly mined by the major networks for news, by wire services for tips, by bloggers for something to kvetch about and by Google News and countless other aggregators.
Just as subprime mortgage vendors had no one checking the credit of those dodgy borrowers, Google employs no news gatherers. Free news delivered by a search engine is part of the same freeloading zeitgeist that has shattered the larger economy.
As revenues dip below the point that can sustain serious news gathering, many newspapers are abandoning what was once their defining mission: international reporting, investigative journalism and analysis.
Into the maw of this crisis have stepped innovators, some well-intentioned, others self-serving. Some of the most likely sources of serious foreign policy journalism outside the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are nonprofit outfits. National Public Radio and the web-based Pro Publica are among the last bastions of objective international news reporting and analysis. And those newspapers still standing increasingly rely on dispatches from the Associated Press and Reuters, the public utilities of the journalism world.
Some new commercial outfits are rising to fill these abandoned niches. GlobalPost, an ad-supported site based in Boston and staffed by “superstringers” around the world–many of them the axed employees of Newsday, the Boston Globe or the Los Angeles Times–has made some headway. (Full disclosure: I write a weekly column for GlobalPost.)