Yesterday afternoon Nicholas Jackson posted a piece on the New York Post’s “egregious” paywall on The Atlantic’s Technology Channel. The post struck a chord, since it was just the night before that my husband and I saw Page One: Inside the New York Times, a new documentary, at the likewise new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in the beautifully renovated Lincoln Center. It’s not a flawless documentary, but it’s certainly not anywhere near as bad as Michael Kinsley’s review (in The Times) would lead you to believe. Kinsley, a “senior editorial advisor for Bloomberg View, points out that in this “mess” of a documentary, the “real star of the show” isn’t any of the reporters or the Times itself, but Renzo Piano’s Times headquarters on 8th Avenue. Kinsley might just be bitter that he has to work across town in STUDIOS Architecture’s Bloomberg headquarters, which has no street-front presence, and which, some of my students have noted (I’ve taken a few classes there on field trips), feels like Willy Wonka on Wall Street. Even though it’s not actually on Wall Street.
I was surprised to discover that, at several moments during the film, I felt bursts of emotion and conviction: I believe in this institution, dammit. It’s not perfect, but when you take into consideration the scope of its operations and the pressures it’s operating under, I’d say it’s doing a commendable job.
I believe in the institution of journalism — and a lot of what we’re proposing these days as its successors simply don’t measure up. The mixing of categories — the conflation of journalism and “media,” or journalism and aggregation; the proposition that blogging or Tweeting is the new journalism (Twitter is a tool, not a “craft” or an institution), or that there’s such a thing as a citizen “journalist” (they’re typically citizen “content providers”) — is a little frightening to me. Vice magazine‘s video series, which is addressed in the documentary, isn’t journalism. Wikileaks, also addressed at length in the film, isn’t journalism. It’s content provision. And Gawker — with the “Big Board,” listing top-ranked stories in real-time, looming over all in its workroom — simply isn’t in the same business as the Times.
Gawker’s Nick Denton claimed, with characteristic hubris, that The Times simply doesn’t get this new landscape and is destined to crash and burn (or something to that effect); the implication was, obviously, that Gawker’s a model to aspire to. What doesn’t the Times get? How to “churn out quality content”? How to incentivize “journalists” to aim for top spot on the Big Board? We need publications that represent resistance to such popularity-, and profit-driven approaches to agenda setting.
I’ve been a paying seven-day-a-week subscriber to the Times for 14 years, and to the Wall Street Journal for six. I read both papers every morning as a means of orienting myself — as a way to get outside my own head and learn about not only those things that I’m inclined to care about, but those that other smart people, whose judgment I trust, think I should know about (as corny as it sounds, I think this is what’s required of me as a democratic citizen). I realize that the people who provide this service have valuable skills and areas of expertise, and they deserve fair compensation for what they do. Those reporters in the foreign bureaus, the people running the presses and driving the delivery trucks, the web developers and designers creating the Times‘ fantastic interactive features, etc. — they all need to get paid. If we believe in the institutions that employ them, we need to make sure they remain economically viable.
Journalism isn’t free. Advertising isn’t footing the bill anymore, so we need to find ways to pay for our news or risk losing the vitally important public services these institutions offer.
[Update: Coincidentally, L. Gordon Crovitz addresses these issues — in particular, the consequences of the demise of local journalism, and the fact that government funding isn’t the answer — in today’s WSJ.]