David Lazarus, who is a pretty good consumer reporter over at the San Francisco Chronicle, got himself badly singed in a blogosphere flame war a couple weeks ago when he wrote a column arguing that newspapers should start charging for their content online. No more free newspaper Web sites; if you gotta pay half a buck to the buy the print product, you shouldn't get it electronically for free.
It's kind of an insider industry debate, and frankly, this stuff is starting to bore me, and nobody else should care much except that in his fights with bloggers and in a follow-up column March 23, Lazarus got into an issue that is crucial for all of us to think about and understand in the new media world.
Lazarus argues that if the Web content is free, there won't be any money to pay professional reporters (like him). Some of the folks who went after him said, in effect, so what? With tens of thousands of bloggers out there working for free, who needs David Lazarus? Who needs to pay for any news on the Web? Who even needs newspapers; why can't the blogosphere just make its own news?
What that argument amounts to is a failure to understand that there will always be and must, for the sake of democracy, always be people who work in the news business. By that I mean people who are paid full-time to follow politicians, monitor city hall, and investigate wrongdoing.
They may not work in what are now traditional newsrooms or at traditional news outlets. But the typical blogger, who comments on other news reports and does some citizen journalism while holding down a day job or going to school, isn't going to fill the role of full-time reporters. It's not that the bloggers aren't smart or good writers or, frankly, better reporters than a lot of the pros out there. It's just that this job can't be a part-time gig.
Lazarus misses the fact that giving away newspaper stories isn't anything new. The alternative press figured out years ago that newspapers can operate like radio stations put the content out free and sell ads around it and make enough money to hire staff.
But the bloggers don't seem to understand that hiring staff is key. Look at Daily Kos. It's a huge success in part because Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, who runs the site, is a great writer and very talented, but it's also because he does it as a full-time gig. He doesn't charge for anything; he takes ads. But that pays for at least one full-time staffer and soon, I think, will pay for more.
The time will come (and I bet it's sooner than later) when Daily Kos or another similar site will have enough money to decide to hire a full-time political blogger to, say, cover the presidential race. That person may not be someone who went to journalism school, and he or she may not write with the style or sensibility of the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times or the Washington Post. But that reporter-blogger will be able to do what most citizen journalists can't that is, devote full time to the job and thus will get original stories, real news. That's never going to change. *