Monday, 29 June 2009

Paying for Good Journalism: The New Yorker, Financial Reporting, and the Business Model

This morning I had intended to draw your attention to a scary piece in The New Yorker of May 25 by Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction,” but a CBC radio program about the crisis in journalism these days intervened. The Kolbert story—which suggests strongly that humans are the cause of what may become the sixth massive extinction of life forms on earth—as well as a recent article on costs in US health care by Atul Gawande, “The Cost Conundrum,” are the very best sort of intelligent investigative journalism. In both cases, the writers must have spent months on the stories, building on years of interest in a particular field.

It is exactly that sort of careful, time-consuming journalism that Ira Basen says is under threat in his report “News 2.0: The Future of News in an Age of Social Media” which aired on The Sunday Edition. It used to be that editors and reporters had a chance to weigh and consider the veracity and importance of news before it was disseminated. With the rise of cell phone videos and instantaneous web access that has gone out the window. The emphasis is on immediacy, and the business model—where advertisers and subscribers pay for journalistic expertise--which supported print, radio and television journalism is crumbling before its onslaught. It’s very clear that the transformation of journalism is undergoing is not going to pay people to do the kind of thinking that lies behind Kolbert’s and Gawande’s pieces—nor, for that matter, Basen’s report.

But perhaps we should also realize that journalism as it has been practiced has its grave defects too. Dean Starkman, for one, has recently chastised the business and financial press itself on the way it failed (or maybe refuse) to see what was coming before last year’s major economic meltdown. “If the question is: Did the press provide adequate warnings to the public? The answer would be: No,” he told an audience of financial journalists recently.

In this case, it may be the current business model which was at fault—who paid for all those reports over the years but the investment bankers, trusts, and other high finance wizards advertising in the financial press? As I noted last week when talking about the Quebec government increasing its advertising budgets: those who pay the piper call the tune. And when you’re building a house (or pyramids to finance housing) of cards, you don’t want anyone to look too closely.

So what’s the answer? Many voices, I suspect, but somehow ways must be found to pay some people to spend the time necessary to reflect and weigh the voices, too. Twittering is mindless, context is important, editing is all.

I note, by the way, that the Kolbert article is available for free only in summary on the web, but that a full digital edition is available to New Yorker subscribers--or one can by a copy of the article. Is that the way things will go? Stay tuned.

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