It’s not just Gillmor’s obsequious catchphrase, “readers know more than I do,” which may be true on some abstract level, sometimes, but on the important matters is often simply untrue. No reader—no community of readers—knew more about Standard Oil than Ida Tarbell, though, it is true, plenty of sources came out of the woodwork to help her along the way. Just so, “readers” could not be expected to know the sweep of the News of the World story and its implications. It’s not that Nick Davies is a genius, but he was working on the story for years, and after three decades in the business he’s well-sourced and may even—dare I say it?—have professional skills or other qualities that some readers, even academics, do not.

But it goes deeper than that.

FON thinkers put forward the idea of news as a commodity, describing it variously as abundant, undifferentiated, and of low value. As a consequence, FON thinking assumes, it won’t ever command much of anything in a market where the costs of distribution are basically zero.

If the argument were that the cost of replicating the news has crashed to zero, that’s one thing. But FON thinkers go further. They assert that news (as opposed to, say, writing about news) is a commodity by its nature.

As Shirky wrote (my emphasis):

One way to escape a commodity market is to offer something that isn’t a commodity. This has been the preferred advice of people committed to the re-invention of newspapers. It is a truism bordering on drinking game material that anyone advising newspapers will at some point say, “All you need to do is offer a product so relevant and valuable the consumer is willing to pay for it!”

This advice is well-meaning. It’s just not much help. The suggestion that newspapers should, in the future, create a digital product users are willing to pay for is merely a restatement of the problem, by way of admission that the current product does not pass that test.

Paywalls, as actually implemented, have not accomplished this. They don’t expand revenue from the existing audience, they contract the audience to that subset willing to pay. Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them.

Set aside the fact that a “subset willing to pay” defines any business’s customer base, anywhere. Notice that Shirky presents the fact that newspapers didn’t charge for news (wonder who gave them that advice?) as the market’s verdict that they couldn’t.

Jarvis, too, describes a media landscape of undifferentiated abundance:

Is there any scarcity left in media? . . . Some argue that trust is scarce. Well I suppose that’s always true, but I now have more sources for news than I have ever had—not just my local newspaper, but The Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, bloggers I respect, and more. Is quality still scarce? Yes, of course, but the more content that is made, the more opportunities there are for more people to make good content.

But wherever Jarvis lives, unless it is in Westminster, London, chances are the BBC doesn’t cover it. And does it really follow that the “more content that is made,” the higher the likelihood that someone will, what, cover Pawtucket City Hall? Out of love, perhaps?

I covered Pawtucket City Hall, and you had to pay me.

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.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.