It starts Monday for U.S. readers: after twenty free articles a month, and outside of most linked articles and breaking news, access to The New York Times online will cost $15 a month. (Also, $25 to read on your iPad, and $35 for "all access.") The newspaper spent 14 months planning this transition. I'm hearing a lot of griping about this, so it seems time to make a case for why I, for one, will be putting up and paying up for my digital subscription. I'll even be happy to do it.
Good journalism is expensive.
Add up the cost of reporters and writers. Add up high-quality editors and fact-checkers and copyeditors. And then the cost of logistics: even with substantial budget cuts, the Times has 16 news bureaus in New York state, 11 national bureaus, and 26 foreign bureaus to maintain -- not to mention the costs of translators, correspondents, travel, photographic equipment, database-building, the kind of investigations that take time and commitment, rather than quick headline pivots. Not to mention lawyers and legal resources: the New York Times has a long tradition of courtroom defenses of press freedom, such as the 1971 Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of its paper and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers. Or the 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that established the 'actual malice' standard for charges of defamation or libel. More recently, the Times won a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case in federal district court last November, as it pushes the U.S. Treasury Department to name the companies and individuals licensed to conduct business in sanctioned nations, like Iran and North Korea. Oh, and not to mention dealing with its journalists getting kidnapped and assaulted. The list goes on and on. The fact is, if you are a publication that doesn't intend to do a cursory job with reporting, it will cost money ...
Good journalism is worth paying for.
... and it is worth that money. More specifically, as readers, it is worth it for us to pay for good journalism. Now, to be clear, god knows that the Times' has its share of problems, even egregious ones. I have had more than enough head-desk moments -- including with the book review section, which seems to believe that translated literature belongs on its pages about as much as plagiarism does. And the Times seems weirdly out of proportion with coverage of the revolutions and political stand-offs in North Africa and the Middle East right now. And what the hell about that Cleveland, Texas rape article?
The point is, I don't expect my complaints to vanish as I take out my debit card and pitch into the price of its journalism. But a great deal of the paper's work is extraordinary. Think of Sheri Fink's "The Deadly Choices at Memorial." Think of David Barstow's "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand." Think of investigations into the abuse of mentally ill patients in state homes and the White House's illegal wiretapping during the Bush Administration, and toxic ingredients in imported medicine. Think of the on-the-ground coverage of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and drug corruption in Mexico. (All are Pulitzer winners; the paper has won a total of 104 of these prizes so far.) UPDATE: David Kocieniewski's multi-page report, published yesterday, about how and why G.E. paid zero dollars in taxes last year, while collecting a $3.2 billion tax benefit, also deserves notice.
It is not a radical notion that good journalism is worth paying for. This is what people did for the first 145 years of the Times' history. In adapting to the internet, publications started giving away all their information for free, which led to people thinking it should be free (or, in a buzzphrase that grates on me, that the information wants to be free.') I'm all for accessible information -- which is why its important that the Times will make freely available a decent number of articles per month, plus breaking news and articles linked on search engines and social networking. Not to mention the newspapers that are freely available to us at public libraries. But it is eminently reasonable for the Times to hold back the larger wealth of its hard-fought journalism for subscribers. If they don't, they -- and the journalism they produce, that so many other "news" sites poach depend upon for their existence -- will go away. It will. For my part, I care enough about good information in this world to be one of them.
You can afford it.
As a freelancer with a variable income who is very serious about getting out of student loan debt as fast as possible, I know that $15/month can add up. Every little bit matters. But -- seriously. Think of what you spend $15/month on. This is the cost of one nice dinner a month. This is three fancy coffee drinks a month. It's 1.5 movie tickets. Three newsstand magazines. A few gallons of fuel. The fact is, yes, you can afford it. Don't hide behind that claim. Either access to the Times' journalism is worth it to you, or it is not.
There are few counterparts to the The New York Times.
This is true for the reasons already mentioned, but also in terms of less visible, but still powerful, behind-the-scenes work; the sources cultivated by the paper's team over years, even decades, is simply not replicable. The kind of training, experience, and expertise of its staff is not paralleled by those who, as Chris Hedges has put it, 'mimic journalism.' The ability to draw out facts from reluctant people, or obtuse bureaucracies, or corrupted organizations, and then to translate that information into clear, thoughtful prose (and images, and graphics), and to do this with overall integrity: well, it's not as common as you might like to think it is.
Nate Silver put it plainly:
Certainly there are some good substitutes: depending on the type of coverage you’re looking for, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or CNN or ESPN.com. Of course, some of these substitutes already charge for digital access, are also having trouble balancing their budgets, or both. But ... there aren’t a lot of substitutes.
A very small number of news outlets account for a very large share of the English-language reporting that is of national or international interest. And with very few exceptions, they are all what we might think of as “traditional” news organizations.
Yup. And another thing: what other publication has a standalone science section, or book review section, that appears alongside its constant domestic and world news coverage? Right.
The public good depends upon your participation, not just your consumption.
There's the old saw about journalism as a 'watchdog' on government, and that's true. Just as good government depends upon the participation of citizens, so does good media depend upon the participation -- not just consumption -- of readers (or audiences). This is tied into what I've descriped above as 'good journalism is worth paying for,' and I won't repeat myself. But it is worth underscoring the fact that, like democracy, we can't expect to good journalism to be there for us if we aren't willing to participate ourselves. We can only coast on the work of others for so long. Now, as the Times' own history illustrates, influential news organizations have been known to sit too closely to the sides of political power, and its 'gatekeeper' model is not sufficient -- though necessary -- for the kind of media ecosystem I want to see flourish. But the Times in particular has absolutely been a potent check against corporate fraud and government abuses, at both the highest and local levels, and I am actually afraid of what would happen if it vanished.
There is something called the public good. The common good. Good journalism is fundamental to this. I not only need to be a participant in it; I want to be one.
Now, I'm up for healthy discussion about how the Times -- and other journalistic enterprises, whatever the medium -- might venture forward with paid readership. Perhaps the model should be scalable and adaptable. You could pay less per month for access to fewer articles (more than 20, but not 100%), or you pay separately for particular sections (discounted rate for all sections). Maybe more hybrid subscriptions should be available: for now, if you are a home delivery subscriber, you will get free online access to the digital incarnation of the Times, but maybe more adaptations can be imagined.
Or maybe you simply don't feel that subscribing to the Times is worth it, and you'd rather put your support behind a particular magazine or local newspaper that is doing the kind of journalism you admire. I hear that. I understand that.
But what I have no patience for are disputes with the Times experiment that go like this:
"I'll just wait until somebody summarizes their content elsewhere."
"The Times is hopelessly old-fashioned to think that readers should pay for information."
Allow me to irritably parry these arguments.
Putting aside the parasitic implications of the first dispute, aggregation and summariziation are no substitute for actual information. Commentary is not equivalent to facts, or to direct interaction with direct reporting from around the world (and I say this as someone who loves commentary). I'm sure many people will abide by this model of depending upon paraphrase -- as they did in the pre-Internet days too -- but I am decidedly nonplussed about the attitude. It seems like someone who chooses this type of "news" consumption is willingly dooming themselves to a thin feedback loop. I don't trust that, as an individual or communal strategy for informing ourselves.
As for the second dispute, this seems just clueless. First of all, see the journalism is expensive item above. Also, let's admit that models depending on online advertising dollars and classifieds are not able to fill the necessary coffers. More nefarious advertising -- like paid advertisements that appear entirely unmediated as reported news stories -- might bring in money, but are of course despicable. Given this, and given also the undesirable world full of only aggregate content, and it's not too many steps to go before we start realizing that, in fact, having readers pitch in for online content is not only not old-fashioned: it's the future. While it will evolve and improve over time, a world that still cares about good information is a world that will have readers subscribing to online journalism. In a way, then, the Times transition is groundbreaking.
Worth noting, before we leave this: this year marks the 160th anniversary of the New York Times' debut. Happy birthday, Gray Lady. And thank you.
Image Credit: Flickr, via user wallyg.