About two years after I’d started blogging, a journalist friend of mine gently needled me about what I was doing. “You’re going to put us all out of business if you keep giving away all that stuff for free,” he commented. This was right when the bottom was beginning to fall out of print journalism as Craigslist eviscerated revenue from classifieds, other advertising was chasing readers online, and subscription revenue continued its downward trends in many urban markets.
I begged to differ. I still do, but with less blithe assurance than I had back in 2005. There were more blogs then than now, but what I was doing and most bloggers were doing didn’t really undercut what should have been the distinctive content advantage of print journalism. What online content creators were doing, however, without necessarily knowing it, was unbundling print journalism, and most audiences were paying for the whole bundle.
Around 2005-2007, you could get reviews of both popular and elite culture online, in a much wider range of attitudes and writing styles. You could read a vastly better and wider range of opinion and commentary on the news than the moribund, hopelessly establishment editorial pages of virtually any print newspaper or magazine. You could get better classifieds via Craigslist. You could often get better really local news via neighborhood listservs and similar community sources. If you didn’t care much about anything beyond the lede, you could get a quick feed of the major and minor news of the day through various aggregator blogs.
What the unbundling of journalism demonstrated is that most of its readers had completely forgotten the history of how all of that came to be bundled in the newspaper in the first place, and eventually created reasonable livelihoods for staff writers. Unbundling also revealed that the assumption that readers most valued long-form reportage by skilled and experienced writers was false. That was the most expensive kind of content to create (large salaries for the punditocracy squatting on the editorial pages aside) but not really what most of the audience was buying.
Fast forward to now, and this is how we’ve arrived in a world where Nate Thayer is asked by the Atlantic to donate his content for free so that he can “gain a platform for exposure”. This is a bad place to have arrived. So what’s to be done about it?
A few thoughts:
1) Comic books and long-form serious reportage may be in the same place. Meaning, they’ve been sold primarily in serial, short format through a very particular retail architecture, and both the creators and the retailers of this content have built their lives around the cash flow that this format created. But increasingly if audiences are willing to pay for work, they’d rather buy it in long-form: trade paperbacks for comics, non-fiction books or other long-form formats for reportage. Adjusting to this change in the market is going to kill some businesses outright: the comic-book store, the average daily newspaper. But it doesn’t have to put all the creators out of business–they just have to find new distributors and get used to creating work intended to be bought and consumed at that longer scale.
2) Readers who want original information need to stop visiting sites that want to cheap their way around acquiring it, and sites that want those readers and their eyeballs need to stop relying on a model of spraying content out like a firehouse. Yes, I’m talking boycott, at two different ends. More people who create content, even folks who are indeed trying to “get exposure”, need to refuse to let organizations that can pay publish material for free and to enforce ownership rights when they go ahead and try to do it anyway, and more readers who consume content need to pressure sites like the Atlantic to cut that shit out or they’ll stop clicking. Either go ahead and be the HuffPo, and there’s only room for a few aggregator sewers at the bottom, or earn your eyeballs with distinctive content that you paid for.
3) However we get there, a publication platform that allows reasonably priced, no-hassle micropayments for a la carte purchasing of medium-length reportage and other writing that has minimal DRM could have a huge impact. Similarly, I can imagine something a bit like Kickstarter on a much smaller and more focused scale that would let non-fiction writers raise an advance for long-form work that requires travel or similar expenses in return for copies of the work when it’s produced.
4) Long-form reportage has to be saved from the last “investigative journalists” of the mainstream print and television media. Meaning, the people who have done it well and want to keep doing it well have to very clearly distinguish what they do from the insider-access blowjobbery that has been mistaken for “investigative reporting” ever since Woodward and Bernstein sauntered into the scene. Among other things, this means giving up once and for all the tedious formulation of “objectivity” that dominates mainstream American newspapers while equally rejecting the hack-job partisanship of think-tanks and the Beltway punditocracy. A long-form reporter in the new marketplace has to have a real voice, a distinctive style, a good eye–and thus create something that stands out and is worth the money being asked for it. This is the key thing about all cultural markets that are emerging: the work that does more than enhance the reputation capital of its creator, that is a valuable commodity in its own right, has to be distinctive and better. It has to be, in this context, the opposite of the highly standardized craftwork that was the pride and joy of mainstream print journalism in the latter half of the 20th Century. The long-form reportage that people will buy has to throw out its style guides, its pyramids, its sense of belonging to a guild and a profession. Of course, in an America where nothing else (healthcare or retirement savings, for example) is even remotely friendly to individuals who are selling their own content or services directly, this is not a happy-looking alternative, not yet. Happy or not, it’s the alternative to having to give up work for free to a freshly minted M.A. in online journalism who has been trained to give up work for free. (This might be where unbundling eventually goes for many professions, including higher education…)