Thursday, April 15, 2004

Maybe information needs to be free, but does journalism?
You must read this article from AdAge. (reg. req. but a hint: if you pop "sears" into the quick search, the article, "Marketers press for product placement in magazine text," will come up on the search and you can click right to it.)
Now a growing number of marketers want to persuade the nation's print magazines to open the text of their editorial pages to product placement.
We're not talking "advertorials" here -- but where the editorial matter itself becomes the product placement. One executive quoted in the article notes that other media don't have the "ankle-weights" of the traditional separation of "church and state" that print journalism has. Another notes: "Advertisers are asking for what they want on TV, and they're getting it."
Pardon me while I shudder.
But this isn't about hand-wringing over breaching "the wall." With due respect to the "information wants to be free" folks, it's about asking, "Well, maybe, but how much of journalism should be free?"

This is not about separating Big-J journalism from little-j. First, I hope you've gathered from this Web log that I am a big supporter of the little-j and fear that the established news factories risk ignoring the opportunities and challenges at their peril. Those new independent journalists, in this country's long history of such endeavors, may be the ones who have the nimbleness and willingness to dig into the deepest, dankest corners of our society and institutions. Yet, they must be able to eat.
Big-J, for all its many faults, still is the best positioned and provisioned to take up those worthy threads and press them on the large scale needed in today's world of big government, big business, big education, etc., and occasionally uncover "the big one" on its own. (If you're buying the beer, we can debate all night whether those media companies will do that, but for now let's assume the journalistic flame still flickers deep inside the beasts.)

Both Big-J and little-J thus must be freed from the tyranny of a mediated economic system.

Newsprint and TV, with their heavy embedded costs, have difficulty doing that (though with the proliferation of cable channels sucking up whatever moves, the possibility is there for TV). The Web or similar electronic forms, with their relatively small marginal costs, can.

Journalism, while being a public service, is a business. And in the business world, they keep score by how much money you make. Independence is "earned" (or perhaps bought) by running up that score. But no other major business I know of has the kind of filter that journalism has between its customers and its bottom line. You might garner a tremendous audience, bit if it's not the "right" audience, the advertisers won't run up the score for you.

If journalism's true value is to be measured, the filter must be lifted. Not all of it should be behind a pay-as-you-go wall, but truly significant but essentially niche work (investigative reporting, perhaps) might well have to go this way to survive. This will start the hand-wringing over how democracy will suffer. But I'd suggest that as journalists, our roles in democracy already are suffering, and it's because we have so devalued truly significant journalism that it has blended into the white noise that has become our information society.

This might seem like blasphemy; after all, wasn't I the beneficiary of free access to that AdAge article? Yes, and it makes me wonder how much I would be willing or able to pay for such things, which raises some questions that should be vigorously debated: Is there a baseline of information and journalism that should be free? In an information-based society, should every person have the right to some basic amount of access (akin to the Universal Service Fund idea in the utility industry)? How much should be charged for the rest, if anything? Can a free market in information serve our society's needs or will information and, by extension journalism, come to be looked at like a utility? How might that change what we do?

As we move even farther into the information society, I suspect these questions will increasingly become political ones. If we as journalists do not get into this debate early enough to start framing it for our desires and needs, I fear we will once again have things decided for us, to the detriment of us all.

Now, if you want to be further vexated, read AdAge's accompanying article about IntelliTXT that turns words in a story into commercial messages when you roll your pointer over them and click. The danger is that in pursuit of revenue and to cast off those "ankle-weights," articles will be seeded with such words.

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