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 dismissed The 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 Age noted, 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’t adopted 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. I decide 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.