Judging from the comments on my two posts last week on reporting and paywalls, I didn’t do a good job of making my case. I think that’s partly because this is an argument about culture as much as economics. Traditional newspaper journalists have a certain set of assumptions about the nature of journalism, the obligations of journalists, and the proper relationship between a journalist and her readers. The web has its own culture with its own set of answers to these questions. Unfortunately, the “debate” over the Times paywall has largely consisted of people on each side loudly reiterating their own side’s assumptions without paying much attention to what the other side has to say. Needless to say, that hasn’t been very illuminating.
So if you’ll forgive me for yet another post (actually two!) on an over-blogged subject, I want to step back and talk explicitly about some of the baseline assumptions made by these two cultures (the web and the print press, respectively). Every culture is solipsistic, with the result that assumptions that seem almost self-evident in one culture will strike the other culture as implausible or even perverse. It’s only by talking about these assumptions explicitly that we can make some sense of the ongoing argument between these communities.
As is often the case, the web/print culture clash is rooted in the differing capabilities of their respective technologies. Daily newspapers were born in an era of information scarcity. Distributing a newspaper is expensive enough that most people tended to take just one.
This meant that a newspaper had to be all things to all people: they needed to cover a full spectrum of topics and do it in a way that didn’t assume the reader had access to any other publications.
The web is obviously different. There are thousands of websites that offer news coverage. Readers don’t generally go to a single news website and read it “cover to cover.” Rather, they sample from a wide variety of sources. And this means that news sites don’t need to be all things to all readers. They can focus on a particular topic to cover in depth. They can write for a narrow audience, skipping background exposition that a general-interest outlet would have to cover.
Most importantly, they can link to other sites. Links are profoundly important for the character of the web because they allow writers to make incremental contributions to ongoing conversations. Rather than trying to be “all things to all people,” writers can link to and quote from conversations that are happening somewhere else and then make a (possibly small) contribution of their own. This division of labor opens the conversation up to many more people. A nuclear physicist may not feel competent to write an AP-style news story about the Fukushima nuclear incident, but he can link to a news story about it and then offer his expert opinion. And his thoughts can, in turn, be incorporated into future writing by non-experts.
This helps explain one of the perpetual sources of friction between mainstream media outlets and bloggers. Mainstream media outlets prize original reporting to the point that they’ll perform completely redundant reporting rather than citing another journalist’s work. In contrast, on the web it’s considered perfectly kosher to quote and link to another news outlet without doing original reporting. What’s not kosher online is failing to give credit to the original source for a story—even if subsequent reports are independently reported.
Indeed, the norm of linking to original sources is strongly enforced within the blogosphere. If a site develops a reputation for failing to credit sites that break stories, other sites will “boycott” it by refusing to link to its stories. The result is an economic model for rewarding sites that do original reporting. Web traffic operates as a de facto currency.
What we have here, at root, is a conflict between autarky and the division of labor. The newspaper style of news gathering is expensive because, like any autarkic system, it eschews the benefits of specialization. The Times does some kinds of reporting superbly and efficiently, but it does many other kinds of reporting clumsily and wastefully. On the web, in contrast, each news outlet focuses on producing the types of information it can produce most efficiently and “trades” with other publications for other kinds of information. The result is a decentralized system that produces news at much lower average cost than the centrally-planned model of a newspaper.
OK, so with that background, it’s worth going back to our running example of covering an away baseball game. Newspaper partisans want to know who is going to pay to send a New York reporter to Toronto to cover a Yankees away game. The answer is that this is the wrong question. The right question is: how is a New York publication going to get information about a Toronto baseball game to its readers? And the answer is there’s likely to be plenty of information about the game on the web already. So the 21st century news outlet’s job isn’t necessarily to do original reporting. Rather, its job is largely to help readers find the information that’s already out there, possibly with a bit of original reporting to fill in the gaps.
The obvious objection is that there’s no guarantee that there will be any coverage for the New York publication to link to. But although this is true in a trivial sense, it’s not actually much of an objection. There’s no law or institution guaranteeing I’ll be able to buy groceries next year, but I don’t lose sleep over the possibility that all the supermarkets in my town will go out of business—I’m confident someone will find a way to satisfy my demand for food. Similarly, people want to read about Yankees games in Toronto. If there’s a shortage of sports reporting in Toronto, one of the millions of people in Toronto will step in and fill the gap. Asking for an explanation of precisely how this will be done is the same kind of conceptual error as asking which farmers will produce the food I’ll have for dinner next week. The content in question isn’t too expensive to produce and there’s a financial incentive to produce it. So someone will.
That’s fine for baseball games, I hear you say, but who’s going to pay for the New York Times‘s Baghdad bureau? There probably aren’t a lot of Iraqis who will step up to write about the war for an American audience, no matter how much traffic such a blog would generate. I’ll address that question in my next post.