Congratulations on the publication of your recent fiftieth anniversary issue (CJR, November/December 2011). It was truly the finest collection of commentary and analysis concerning the media that I have ever seen. I am so happy to see that your magazine has improved dramatically in the past few years.
Los Angeles, CA
I am truly honored that you included a photo of me (or at least of my bare feet) in your fiftieth anniversary edition (“The Moments,” CJR, November/December); it is Susan Meiselas’s photo among the Magnum selection. However, for the record, I was working for The Boston Globe at the time, not The Washington Post. In the full set of Meiselas’s photos from that day (we were in the public telephone office in San Francisco Gotera, Morazan province, El Salvador), there is a fourth reporter, Robert McCartney. Bob was the Washington Post correspondent.
To fill in the background: in the best of the photos that include Bob, he is sitting on the floor munching on chicken—a somewhat less heroic stance than the three reporters, including me, diligently dictating stories from longhand. The truth of the matter was that Bob was faster than me and Sam Dillon and James LeMoyne, and he had already finished filing by the time Susan made the shots.
The issue was full of valuable stories. I especially liked Michael Shapiro’s revealing history of the Merc.
Onward to the next fifty!
National Immigration Correspondent
The New York Times
New York, NY
Fun With FON
Thanks, Dean Starkman, for a good piece that everybody who cares about journalism should read (“Confidence Game,” CJR, November/December). And I think you arrive at the right place—the middle ground of institution-based journalism in a networked world.
I often cringe at the theorizing of what you call the Future of News (FON) crowd. As you correctly point out, it’s rarely fact-based opinion. I don’t dismiss out of hand the degree to which old-school journalism will continue to be disrupted in an increasingly digitized, mobile, and networked world, but I do know there is an audience for third-party reportage, both small and great in scope. I don’t see a way in which that might ever change. The big question will be in an increasingly turbulent media environment: How do we pay for it? None of the fon crowd has answered that question.
In the near term, I think I see a path forward (via good old-fashioned adjacency marketing), but I also see a horizon out there, a scary one, to be sure, and uncertain how far away it is, in which solid journalism is much too disrupted to be profitable in any form.
Congratulations on a valuable counterbalance to the new orthodoxy of the FON approach. New media have brought so much beneficial public involvement in newsgathering, comment, and the dissemination of information that opposition to the FON consensus gets dismissed as simply Luddite. Yet the vague FON optimism—that somehow committed activists will replace much of what journalists do—remains unjustified.
A notably fatuous claim is that “news is a conversation.” News is a service that people require for many reasons—and most people no more want to have a conversation with a journalist than they want to have a conversation with the postman. So I wish the FON enthusiasts would advocate new developments without damning the journalistic systems on which we still depend.
There are three pay models for journalism: 1) reader-sponsored subscriptions; 2) commercial-sponsored advertising; 3) benefactor-sponsored commons. I may be wrong, but for a journalism venture to be successful, you have to have one or a mix of these three.
The problem facing journalism today is the same problem facing music labels and movie content providers: people can do their own production and distribution because the process of distribution over the network carries near zero cost at near instant speed. This acts as a cost pressure driving down margins of profit from subscriptions and ads. Once you’ve softened the professional requirement for journalism production and distribution, it becomes difficult to justify charging the professional premiums.
In that, the paywall seems like a necessary innovation to make people pay for value by restricting the supply of professional content and research. The profit margins won’t be quite as high because the ad model won’t pay as much as it did, but getting the users to pay for what they read is a workable model so long as the quality of what they’re reading exceeds that which they can get for free.
What the Merc Meant