Tomorrow’s news media may look like today’s Op-Ed page

April 27, 2009

Can journalism continue to happen if there’s no money for it?

That’s a real question right now, as the news business grapples for a way to cope with a craven new world where neither readers nor advertisers will pay what they’ve traditionally paid for what journalists do.

One possibility that seems increasingly likely is both worrying and, in a strange way, reassuring: The decline of journalism as something that’s done mainly by professionals who make a living from it.

Instead, I think we’re beginning to see the rise of the Op-Ed model: More and more news sites that look and feel like the contribution-fed, opinion pages of today’s daily newspaper. The work is produced not by staff members but by outside people with some knowledge of a topic. They’re not paid much if at all, and their work is assigned, steered and made presentable by fulltime editors employed in-house.

This model goes beyond aggregation sites, such as the Drudge Report, which summarize and link to news published elsewhere, or blogs like Daily Kos and Instapundit, which are built around opinion.

It’s also a big step beyond crowd-sourcing, in which civilians roll up their sleeves and start unearthing information to feed staff reporters—the kind of powerful input that helped the Fort Myers News-Press expose utility overcharges and Talking Points Memo make sense of the firings of eight of U.S. attorneys and force Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ resignation.

Instead, it’s what you see emerging in such sites as HuffingtonPost.com and The Daily Beast, which build from a base of content filched from other sites while adding analysis and comment from a stable of outsiders, many of them marquee names who bring appeal and credibility.

It’s also the implicit model behind many of the 56 promising hyperlocal, startup sites under the foundation-funded New Voices initiative;  there, a floating cast of outside irregulars is orchestrated by a tiny nucleus of in-house pros to furnish local news.

It’s easy to deplore this as just another dreary way for media owners to cheap out on paying the money that real journalism requires, but let me offer another context: The Op-Ed model is the latest in a long line of subsidy schemes for journalism, which has nearly always lived on charity. For a century or so newspapers in the United States relied on the patronage of political parties; many papers abroad still do.  In the 19th century parties were replaced by the makers of consumer goods, who are now abandoning news media in favor of e-commerce sites and search engine advertising.

Who are the new subsidizers? In the Op-Ed model it’s the contributing journalists themselves. Either they’re donating their work outright or they’re selling it for a fraction of what reporters who were making a living from it would need. Either way, the journalists are paying.

It’s not an ideal setup, but then, every subsidy system has its own drawbacks and distortions—partisan corruption when the parties ran the press, slobbering over local capitalists when the advertisers wrote the checks.

With the Op-Ed model, it’ll be very hard to ensure coherence and consistency in coverage, let alone quality. It’ll also be difficult to keep people around long enough for them to develop depth and understanding if they must steal the time from their off-hours—or their day jobs—the keep the sites stocked with news.

Worse, the problem of conflict of interest is huge and virtually endemic. By its nature, the Op-Ed model depends on the work of journalists who, in turn, depend on outside paymasters. You can’t prohibit them from moonlighting when it’s their journalism that’s the moonlighting.  So how can you keep those outside dependencies from tilting their work?

Disclosure, the favorite solution of the blogosphere, is a start, but it’s no cure-all. Even if it could be enforced, disclosure doesn’t clean up the journalism, it only announces that the work might be dirty. Plus, it may run afoul of other obligations: Suppose my employer doesn’t want to be associated with my journalistic hell-raising?

Still, these are problems that will need to be confronted and overcome. In the economic crisis that’s shaking journalists out of the conventional news business, we may have no choice but to trust to the zeal and generosity of volunteers to keep journalism alive—and retain some semblance of the scrutiny and accountability that keeps public life honest.

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