By Tim Redmond
I didn't say anything when David Lazarus first created a modest stir by suggesting that newspapers should charge money for online content. I figured the world of bloggers would have a field day with this, and I didn't want to pile on. They did; I can't fit links to all of them, but Lazarus quotes the most savage in his column today. Even Jon Carroll weighed in, suggesting that journalism schools begin teaching porn reporting because that's where the money is.
But I think all of them are missing the point.
What this all really amounts to is a failure on all sides to understand that there will always be -- and must, for the sake of democracy, always be -- people in the news business. By that I mean people who are paid full time to follow politicians, monitor CIty Hall, investigate wrongdoing and that sort of thing. They may not work in what are now traditional newsrooms or at what are now considered traditional news outlets. (A new weekly paper in Long Beach has already decided to dispense with a newroom altogether). And they may not be the same people, or have the same types of backgrounds as David Lazarus and Jon Carroll (and me).
But bloggers who do what most bloggers do right now, which is comment on other news reports and do some citizen journalism while they hold down day jobs or go 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. The world is just too complicated today -- and there is too much going on in state, national and local government -- to track it on anything but a ful-time basis.
What Lazarus misses is that there's a new economic model emerging here, and it doesn't involve charging for online content. In one sense, it's not that 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.
Look at Dailykos. It's a huge success in part because Markos Moulitsas is a great writer and very talented, but it's also because he does it as a full-time gig and he's bringing in enough money to pay for a rather large and expensive system of servers and bandwith to handle massive traffic. 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) that Dailykos or another similar site will have to 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 same style or sensibilties of the San Francisco Chronicle or New York Times or Washington Post -- but hey, neither do my reporters, and that's why we're such a valuable alternative. 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 that nobody else will have.
The blog publishers will still operate with the model they do today -- the readers will participate and comment on and add to and reinforce (or criticize) the work of the full-timers, and the world the reporters work in will be more open, and they will be more accountable, than anything that ever existed in the industry before. This is not something to fear; it's comething to celebrate.
The term "journalist" is already changing and will have to change more. That's good; that's what happened 40 years ago when the underground and then alternative press turned traditional journalism on its head. But in the end, the public wants news, and finding news takes time, and there will have to be an economic model that supports full-time newsgatherers. They may call themselves bloggers or something else altogether. That's not what matters. Someone has to have the time (and yeah, to some extent, training) to dig out the real news from what the politicians and corporations put out. And charging for content on the web most likely isn't the way those positions will be funded.