Given the previous post, this might be as good a time as any to note that the World's Best Photography Magazine (my nickname for the New York Times) is transitioning (again) into being a pay site. The deal is that your first 20 visits every month are free, but if you want to visit more often than that you're going to have to subscribe.
As a "content provider" in web terms, sort of, I can sympathize. The bills have to get paid somehow. The Times is probably outscaled for the web; the web is a mist of fine particles, and doesn't lend itself quite naturally to providers of buckets full of information. Even the mighty Times is usually experienced by browsers of the web a drop or two at a time: you follow a link to an article or two, then surf away again—you don't spread the web version all over the kitchen table and wallow in it for 45 minutes over a bagel with coffee.
The Week: what a newsweekly should be
The cap limit is likely to be just an annoyance to most users. From that perspective, the agument is that a spoiled and entitled internet audience, foiled from accessing the Times' content, will just go elsewhere, to wherever the information is free. (I'm even put off from visiting sites—and, much more importantly, from linking to them—by free registration firewalls.)
The argument from the other perspective is quite a bit more chilling: it's that the world is increasingly full of vampires, and no one is tranfusing any blood. Even I am a sort of vampire, half the time: witness the subject of the previous post. Jim Lewis is a TOP reader, and leaves comments here from time to time, but all I've done with that post is to point you to an article the Times paid him to write and then gave us all for free.
My recent favorite magazine has that pall over it, too. The magazine is called The Week, recommended to me by my brother Scott, whose reading recommendations are sparse but always good. Apropos my analysis 13 months ago of old TIME vs. new TIME, The Week's inspiration is the original TIME magazine. Much more modest, though. It's a slender rag (I like that about it) with all the news in it that can be crammed in, and just the news, and as briefly as possible. The Week is just what I want and need from a news magazine: it's what I have time for. It's the exact opposite of the direction the foundering Newsweek took when it lately moved to becoming a collection of long essays, something I don't really need (and, actually, don't really trust: I don't always know where the authors stand, and I'm not sure to what extent their analyses are interpretations or arguments, explanation vs. persuasion). But The Week is produced by a skeleton staff and is largely cobbled together from other sources: that is, it's vampirish. It still strikes me as a very valuable, but it's essentially a glorified clipping service. It combs the news and sifts and winnows it, and thanks for that—I do need help processing it all—but what it's not doing is much original reporting.
Of course, the New York Times is often cited in The Week as the source of its news. Along with many other sources, of course. The Week reports not so much on events, but on what the Times, and others, are reporting on events. You see the distinction.
The 30% Rule
The problem, of course, is that not everyone can be a vampire. Someone somewhere has to get down on the ground, do the shoe-leather work, and grind out the content. I do feel I provide a fair amount of original content—mostly in the way of opinion, entertainment, and commentary—but, for the most part, I'm not a reporter. I'm not out in the world gathering news. I'm not a replacement for the Times sending Jim out to work up an article on Herr Steidl.
What the situation reminds me of is what a naturalist I spoke to a number of years ago called "The 30% Rule." He was with the Michigan DNR, and I had contacted him to pick his brain about the controversial destruction of a local swamp. Speaking of America's wetlands, he said that the draining and filling of the first 30% of wetlands was essentially inconsequential; it didn't really matter (past tense because that 30% is gone now). The environment could spare it. The middle 40% is a gray area—arguable. But the final 30% is absolutely critical to the ecology of the nation's lakes, rivers, and streams: we destroy the last 30% of our wetlands at great peril to the hydrology of the land, the health of the ecosystem. Thus, business and development interests who claim that destruction of wetlands in the past hasn't had much bad effect are correct, but environmentalists who say the last remaining wetlands must be preserved at all costs are also correct.
I think The 30% Rule might apply equally to news-gathering organizations as well. You can kill 30% of them right off the top and hardly feel the loss; the middle 40% are debatable; but the last 30% are essential to the functioning of a free democracy and the interests of an adequately informed public. We're clearly in the middle 40% right now. But we're headed towards dangerous territory. Especially with the public wells increasingly polluted by uneducated demagogues and propaganda channels, somebody has to do original reporting under old-fashioned standards; everybody can't just repeat what somebody else said somewhere else.
To put it another way: we don't need a dozen photographers clustered around the corpse of a child who was shot by police. But we sure as hell need one.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by HT: "I forgot about your old blog post about old Time vs. new Time magazine. Have you seen this video from The Onion? Hits the nail right on the head."
Mike replies: That is hilarious. Thanks, I needed that.
Featured Comment by Jessica: "Jessica here from The Week. Thanks for the praise—we actually saw a nice spike in traffic today thanks to your post! We appreciate it. Are you on Twitter or Facebook anywhere? We'd love to link to you. Thanks!"