So what is journalism's value?
Over on BNET, Erik Sherman has a retort to Robert Picard's Christian Science Monitor article earlier this week, Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay.
In Why Readers Deserve No Journalism, Sherman adopts the "we're going to take our ball and walk away if you don't play (or pay) nice" stance. He's joined by several "woe is me" commenters who fall back on the canard that if we just go where the money is, journalism goes to hell.
Sherman falls prey to the same kinds of inaccuracies he accuses Picard of.
The key here is not absolute value, but perceived value - it's, after all, why an American Idol-winning singer gets multimillions, etc. I read Picard as arguing that journalists are not perceived to have skills particularly distinctive or specialized (and Sherman's rebuttal of Picard's example of electricians is off-base -- electricians have to be licensed, which, ipso facto, means society values their skills with enforced scarcity).
The problem really isn't so much commodity news as it is that when there is economic value it is so fleeting as to be uncapturable. Consider, the first bulletins and stories on 9/11 were practically priceless if you were anywhere near ground zero (or about anywhere, for that matter). But after five minutes, their value had dropped to pretty much zero. That is the underlying conundrum with much "news."
Can we produce journalism that has lasting value? I don't know whether we can produce enough of it or if the ROI on such stories makes them doable -- and at the same time produces enough margin to make it possible to do the things that many journalists argue the public really needs and wants but doesn't know it yet.
Which then brings us to the social benefits/costs. But those, of course, are rarely quantifiable, which is why we have government rules and regs to make businesses et al. effectively absorb them or the public pay for them. (It's really the raison d'etre of government, isn't it?) But that gets into a sticky wicket with journalism, doesn't it?
In a way, Sherman round about comes to the same conclusion as Picard -- that unless journalists can find a way to produce things with intrinsic or perceived value -- and value that can be captured -- then things deteriorate. Picard attacks it from the angle of better content. Sherman attacks it from trying to create a scarcity, which is really what media was based on for most of the 20th century.
Problem is, I think his suggestion will leave most people just yawning. Most people use news media primarily for surveillance. They don't need that much of it.
Or, sure, take your ball and go home. Just be careful what you wish for.
Update: Brandon Keim has an annotated critique of Picard's article. Aside from the occasional snark, it raises some good debatable points. But ultimately it seems to boil down to two points
- Journalism is a victim of rampant fecklessness by the public which just doesn't seem to give a fig about the valuable work journalists due, accelerated by the infernal Internet.
- The value of journalism is so great to society that some price should be exacted.
And that's what too many journalists do not seem to understand - people never actually paid for the journalism. If they had, we could have been out selling our work individually on the streets (why have a middleman?). They paid for the aggregation, the convenience and the filtering function -- yes, the packaging, as much as anything .
Journalists needed the middleman. So did consumers. It was a nice symbiotic model. But consumers no longer need it so much. The business only works so long as both sides of the equation are in equilibrium.
I'm not debating that journalism has value. In that, I think Picard is a little narrow in defining its value as merely functional. There is a social value. But functional, social or otherwise, the main point is that it is almost impossible to capture given our current technological, economic and legal framework.
Now that Keim has had his shot at Picard, I'd like to see him take on the challenge of how to capture that social value.