In an article on the Boston Phoenix’s Web site last week, Adam Reilly argued that The New York Times Company should retain its money-hemorrhaging property, the Boston Globe, and use it “as a guinea pig—in the best possible sense of the term—for all the bold innovations it might be pondering for the Times, but isn’t quite ready to undertake.” The Times and other newspapers, Reilly noted, have an interest in finding ways to monetize Web content.
So let the Globe lead the way. Tinker with micropayments, if you must; better yet, use the Globe’s new print price increase as a hook to see how much people might pay, per day/week/month, to read the Globe online. As an added plus, this experiment would show how much (allegedly) pay-to-view content would leak out to free sites under this model, and just how much web traffic from aggregators like Google News would drop as a result.
To which: yes. YES! Reilly’s modest proposal, so sensibly rooted in that quintessentially American practice—experimentation—is a far cry from the kind of fling-ideas-about approach that has characterized so much of the future-of-news conversation of late. A conversation whose funding-journalism propositions are often (though by no means always) rooted in cleverness more than evidence, in vagueness more than specificity. One that tosses ideas about without suggesting how they might be, you know, implemented—or in what commercial context. (See the kicker to David Carr’s “iTunes for News” column in The New York Times: “It sounds promising for newspapers and magazines. Now all we need is a business model to go with it.” And Jack Shafer’s response: “Actually, a flawed iTunes for news already exists: It delivers content through Amazon’s Kindle.”)
Reilly’s call-to-experimentation is, in one sense, just another entry in the fanciful meta-journalism conversation. But in another sense, it offers an antidote to the brand of magical thinking that has come to characterize so much of that discourse of late: it’s a call for us to stop articulating journalism’s future in the conditional tense, and to start doing so in the declarative. Not “we should try this,” but “we will try this.”
In our haste to elevate the theoretical, we sometimes forget the obvious: that good ideas are normatively so only insofar as they lead to good results, and that ideas more generally are useful only to the extent that they serve action. Theories are a means, not an end; a clever hypothesis that no one ever bothers to test might as well never bother to exist in the first place. Belief may create the actual fact, as William James had it; but when we fling about fanciful Monetizing Journalism proposals, as if we were characters in a bubbly Broadway musical—micropaymentsendowmentsandsubsidiesfromUncleSam, even though the sound of it won’t make the market give a damn—we serve little save our own egos.
At CJR, we’ve engaged in some of this wishful thinking, too, of course. We’ve done so in part for the same reason that others do: because—and this can’t be stressed enough—ideas are important, and creativity counts, and innovation demands ingenuity, and all that. Of course, of course. And also because crisis has a democratizing effect: no one, neither expert nor amateur, knows for sure what the future holds for journalism. The marketplace of ideas is so crowded right now—and it’s taken on such Walmart-ian proportions—because everyone’s doing the shopping. And because we are ready, at this point, to buy nearly anything that might work, to question our old assumptions about journalism’s business model and replace them with new ones. We just don’t yet know, in any precise way, what those will be. We’re a bunch of potential consumers-of-ideas, hoping for something good to invest in.
The propositional permissiveness that results from the current crisis is, in theory, noble and empowering; in practice, however, it is both frustrating and exhausting. All too often, an anything-goes mentality gives way to uninformed and untethered supposition. And whether such supposition derives from nostalgia, or anger, or utopianism, or some combination thereof, it tends, at any rate, to remain unconnected to research, reality, or any effort at implementation. (Carr: Here’s a crazy idea: iTunes for News! Shafer: Uh, that already exists.)
Experimentation—doing—James’s actual fact—is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. No longer can we afford to fling fanciful funding-model proposals at the wall, hoping (though with little reason to do so) that a few errant strands might stick. Journalism’s future cannot be entrusted to spaghetti ingenuity.