Asking the tough questions

Via Books, Inq., I read a stimulating ‘Outpost’ by Timothy Egan in the celebratory 4 July New York Times, with the title Save the Press. It is a good, strong article, lamenting the recent cruel cutbacks in the US newspaper industry (made, as Frank Wilson in his Books, Inq. commentary says, to keep stock prices high rather than to cut waste or more efficiently allocate resources), paradoxically at a time when Internet readership of newspapers and other news media is rapidly increasing.

Of course, as Timothy Egan writes, it isn’t a paradox, because nobody has learned to make money out of publishing on the Internet (yet?). Compared with print, online advertising revenues are small, despite increasingly infuriating attempts to force users to witness ever-more clever tricksy flashing, rolling objects obscuring what we are trying to read or even access. When will they learn that this kind of thing is expensive to produce and increasingly counterproductive as far as user uptake is concerned?  

Whether a newspaper, magazine or scientific journal, it costs a lot of money to produce quality content. That point may seem self-evident to you, as it does to me, but it is not self-evident to everyone. Newspapers are strange hybrids, but they are a heck of a lot better than a bland, auto-generated alternative that is not going to get anywhere near the true story. As Susan Sullivan says in her succinct comment to the New York Times piece, “Someone has to ask the tough questions and be paid to do it.” There are lots of other comments at the New York Times site, some of them quite good — perhaps this is an effect of publication on 4 July, or maybe it is always like that. But to return to the point, as Timothy Egan puts it:

“What’s the alternative — the National Public Radio model? It’s possible that some civic-minded nonprofits will end up owning one or two of the nation’s great papers, and operating them as trusts, hands off. But that’s a limited solution, fraught with problems of control and flexibility, and it won’t keep reporters at city hall in Sioux Falls or the statehouse in Santa Fe. Another response is goodbye, and so what. Look at the auto industry numbers from this week, with General Motors slouching toward bankruptcy. Besides, there’s plenty of gossip, political spin and original insight on sites like the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post — even though they are built on the backs of the wire services and other factories of honest fact-gathering. One day soon these Web info-slingers will find that you can’t produce journalism without journalists, and a search engine is no replacement for a curious reporter. And just how much do most contributors at the The Huffington Post make? Nothing! “Not our financial model,” as the co-founder, Ken Lerer famously said. From low pay to no pay — the New Journalism at a place that calls itself an Internet newspaper.”

Are you reading, Henry?

Via Brave New World blog: Private detectives are being used by Norfolk County Council to track down unpaid fines for overdue library books. “It is reported [by The Telegraph] that library users in Norfolk alone have over the last six years paid £1.4m in fines for overdue books.”