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Don’t Nickel My News

February 13, 2009

Walter Isaacson, former Chairman and CEO of CNN and Managing Editor of TIME, is vying for the “re-commoditizing” of the newspaper, but so far, most of his claims are falling on deaf ears. Isaacson makes his argument in last week’s TIME Magazine with his piece, “How to Save Your Newspaper” and is following up with many animated discussions, including my favorite – his appearance on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. He is convinced that there is room to move in the decline of the newspaper industry – that if citizens can be hooked hard by the iTunes phenomenon, surely a similar business model can be designed for the news industry. The New York Times scratched their dalliance in this idea in 2007 and the only major newspaper in the U.S. currently operating under an online subscription model remains the Wall Street Journal.

Isaacson warns that “free news” will come at the consequence of quality content. “Charging for content forces discipline on journalist: they must produce things that people actually value,” Isaacson states. He also criticizes the popular method of fostering profit through advertisement dollars. He says, “Publication’s primary duty should be to its readers, not to its advertisers. You will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not directly depend on them.” As a writer, I happen to disagree with both of these statements. As far as free news compromising quality content, this is easily refutable. Do Habitat for Humanity houses fall apart in a year? I don’t think so. In fact, they are probably twice as valuable because they were made not for profit, but for the betterment of the community. They have an inherent worth that is much more powerful than you think. The daily beat reporter has never been a lucrative occupation, but it’s a spot that’s still consistently filled. Why? It’s for the same reason that musicians continue to play at their corner coffee shop even though their chances of making it big are miniscule. It’s out of a love for what they do. If Isaacson is implying that a lack of adequate compensation is going to make a lazy journalist, I argue that they probably shouldn’t be a journalist in the first place – they’re not in it for the right reasons.

This holds true for his advertisement argument as well. If a newspaper makes its profit solely through advertising, Isaacson’s implication is that the paper will be less conscious of its readers. Doubtful. You still need your readers to visit your website, pick up your paper, in order for those advertising dollars to work. You might not directly depend on them, but like most things in life, it is a system, and your readers indirectly influence your survival. You lose your credibility; you lose your advertising investments.

Here’s where my idealism starts to creep in. Why does everything need a price? The growing field of economic anthropology addresses this incredible tension between market and society where a numerical value is the only way we know how to determine the worth of something, yet there are so many aspects of human nature that lie outside of this measuring rod. We put a price on emotions when we award thousands of dollars in “pain and suffering” lawsuit settlements.  We put a price on our houses which really, for many people, are a huge part of their individual identity. (This may not be true to the modern-day transient American, but for many people they live where their family has been for generations and feel indelibly connected to the land). American technology writer, Dan Gilmor, tells us that “journalism is shifting from a lecture mode to something that resembles more of a conversation.” So the question is, when did we start charging for conversations?

“A penny for your thoughts” is a colloqualism that’s been around forever and I hate it. It is a metaphor that reduces us to vending machines of information and I don’t think this is true. Personally, I am a heart on my sleeve kind of girl and I will talk to anyone and any animal until my lips turn blue. Some people call this a “dreamer,” implying a sort of otherwordly quality, but on the contrary, I think the ability to share makes you more real.

In conclusion, I am embracing the demise of the newspaper as a form of “creative destruction,” something beautiful will appear in its place. I secretly hope that Isaacson’s ideas get mired in the mist and we start to treat our exchange of information and ideas as something sacred, something above the realm of the market. The internet has done a great job of starting us along that path, so all we need to do is keep on PUSHing.

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