The New York Times announced yesterday it will begin charging in 2011 via a metered system for some online content. You would think New York fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Every media pundit is posturing about what this means for the future of journalism. Take a listen to what Jay Rosen of NYU had to say:
Here’s my take. When I was a journalism student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern in the 1970s, my professors told all 100 or so of us freshmen that our goal should be to work on the national desk of the New York Times. That was the pinnacle. That was what we all should want. And if we didn’t want it, well, we were just plain wrong.
I nodded. OK, I’ll try.
A few weeks into classes of Basic Writing, it dawned on me that if everyone in the freshmen class of 1975 –and every year before and after–is told to shoot for the same job, then one heck of a lot of us won’t make the cut. Just how many jobs are there are on the national desk of the NYTimes? And what is the turnover rate?
Yes, NYT is an outlet for elite journalists. It is undeniably a well-respected legacy instituition, but one struggling to be successfully heard above the cacophony of voices and background noise that is today’s media landscape. But can it expect people will pay for it? Isn’t there a generational prejudice of an expectation for free content?
Television used to be free. True, it was a handful of narrow networks, but it was free. At first observers scoffed at the thought of cable television and monthly charges for access to far fewer than the gabillion channel and content options available today. People paid. And paid. And they have not stopped.
My notion is the reporters and multimedia journalists who contribute to the New York Times content must be certain their storytelling is enterprising, value-added and not what an audience can derive from 1,000 other outlets. Or even 10 others. No “official source stenography” and no ranting columnists; the blogosphere has 184 million of of those. That’s worth paying for.
In the 21st century, it’s humbling and exalting to be a writer. I know. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites and also publish books. As an author, publishers want a guarantee you have an audience before you sign the contract. No more chasing the audience after the pub date, but establish the need before you deliver a printed or kindled word. No more agent lunches with the editor and a contract by 3 p.m.
A similar shift is true in daily journalism. There is no guarantee your content will be read, your audience loyal. No one needs to come to you for the news that happened yesterday, unless you will offer some fresh, original take, added to enhanced, engaging alternative storytelling that will seduce readers/viewers/clickers to stay with you from the lead to the last line. The audience is fickle becuase it can be. There is a lot of real garbage out there, but there is a lot of great, evocative narrative journalism. And much of it on sites and from outlets that are not the New York Times.
It is hubris to think people will pay for the New York Times just because it is the New York Times. New sites, nonprofit enterprises and blogs emerge regularly offering content that is valuable and free. No matter where you work or post, as a journalist it is worth the effort and energy to produce excellent, authentic, poignant, humanistic and compelling journalism that informs, edifies and exposes.
However the business model shakes out, it is always the goal to expend the talent to deliver stellar journalism. You just can’t expect people will pay for the brand. Just like you can’t expect as an 18-year-old that you will graduate from college and get a job on the national desk of the New York Times. Along with 100 of your closest friends.