Jeff Jarvis has an excellent post about the New York Times, its paywall and the concept of an engagement-based revenue system. I’m not going to excerpt the post because it isn’t a long one and you should read it in full.
Done then? OK. One other thing that occurred to me while contemplating his idea of rewarding engagement is that such a system would provide few incentives to first-time and causal readers, the sort that would have to pay (comparatively) more for less involvement. But maybe Jarvis sees their engagement as a losing proposition anyway because they aren’t engaged and are therefore unlikely to be so in the future. Either way, I think this is a fascinating idea.
The post also got me thinking, though, about my feelings on the NYT paywall, because Jarvis mentions that the Times is soon going to have a way to weed out those deviants who dodge the cyberblock (I am one of those deviants). I’m sure our community of tech people will find away around this new addition, but nevertheless, this all got me considering what I’d do if push came to shove and I had to either pay for the NYT or not use it. And I don’t think I’ve written down my thoughts on the paywall in Shadowy Silk land yet.
So, here goes: I’m deeply ambivalent about the New York Times paywall. And I don’t mean the dumb improper use of “ambivalent” for which people who don’t know the word’s actual meaning use the term (it does not mean the same thing as indifferent). I have extremely strong, opposite reactions to the concept of paying for the New York Times.
The good: The New York Times, for all its financial troubles, is one of the few news organizations left with the budget to sustain solid foreign bureaus. In addition to that, the Times employs Dexter Filkins and C.J. Chivers, two reporters whose work I find informative and enjoyable. I’ve read books by both of these men and I’ve found those quite worthwhile, too.
Due to its size, The NYT also has the resources to do good reporting. Michael Winerip does good work on education, David Leonhardt does good work on the financial sector and there are many other journalists at the newspaper who do excellent reporting. The Times’ platform, which is enormous, especially factoring in the digital reach, allows writers to set some sort of agenda for the day in news and when this agenda-setting power is used for good, that’s quite important. The NYT’s size allows it to focus on issues that other publications don’t have the capacity to cover and that’s worth keeping in mind.
Lastly (although I may think of more reasons later), the Times is a storied news institution, and although this may surprise anyone who’s read a few of my posts screeching about the media, I think there can be value to that. As much as I love the lefty blogosphere and would love to hardwire their editorial slant into “mainstream” media, there is something to be said, in my mind, about an organization that has the history, pedigree and reach of the NYT. How an institution goes about maintaining that credibility, however, is a different matter.
The bad: the NYT is afflicted, in its news coverage, by many of the problems that ail all news media. Much as PolitiFact must have been keeping an eye on the partisan origins of its lies for the year (see here for a good summary of the issue), the Times too must refrain from seeming too partial to one of the two political parties. And, of course, when one of the two political parties has gone off the deep end and is no longer dealing in good faith (also here), such a commitment stands in the way of honest reporting.
The NYT’s status as a hallowed institution is also one of its major failings because few people takes the Times as seriously as the Times does. This pride sometimes warranted, but so often it is not. The NYT never apologized for its disgraceful “coverage” of the Whitewater “scandal” in the 1990s and pigs will fly when it does so. During the 2000 election, the Times played a leading role in helping George W. Bush get elected. The Times caved on torture enhanced interrogation techniques during GWB’s presidency and also failed to cover itself in glory with regard to the Bush tax cuts.
Furthermore, so often the reporting on political matters focusing on trivial matters at the expense of substance. Some recent gems: a hard-hitting investigation on Mitt Romney’s grooming habits, a piercing look at Mitt Romney’s use of the word “zany” and a in-depth study of how Mitt Romney loves rules (??). This all harks back to what Katherine Boo termed “creeping Dowdism,” which runs rampant at the Times.
The above graf segues me nicely to the next trouble spot: the editorial page. The NYT is supposed to be our liberal bastion, no? The foremost platform for left-of-center thought, yes? Hardly. Although the Times will every so often publish an editorial that sounds like it could’ve been penned by one of the blogosphere’s more unSerious types, the editorial page is a disaster. To wit: Collins (awful), Friedman (awful), Bruni (awful), Cohen (invisible), Kristof (focused on international matters and fine by me), Blow (tribal), Keller (awful), Nocera (fine at times but becoming very Villager friendly), Douthat (awful), Bobo (AWFUL), Down (indsecribably awful). Is all that worth it for Krugman? Well, maybe. Because you can’t price Krugman. But wouldn’t it be better if the NYT didn’t devote more than half of its real estate to blithering idiocy? And, keep in mind, most of the best-known names (Bobo, Dowd, Captain Suck-on-this) are the worst of the bunch.
Aaand the Mustache of Understanding segues me nicely into the final and largest bone that I have to pick: the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I’m not going to rehash or excerpt the disastrous Times coverage in the buildup to the war in detail. I’m not going to bitch and moan about Judy Miller. I’m not going to complain about Joe Wilson and the yellowcake uranium business. All I’m going to say is this: there are so many political issues, so many news stories that are meaningless and transient. Your Casey Anthonys, your balloon boys, all of that stuff dominates headlines for a few days and then (rightfully) dissipates, never to be seen or heard from again. The amount of minutiae that the media focus on 24/7/365 is overwhelming. And none of that stuff really matters.
But on the largest issue of my lifetime (thus far), one whose impact will reverberate for Lord-knows-how-many decades (and that’s not an exaggeration), the New York Times fucked up. Big time. They had an opportunity to speak up against the plans for invasion, to point out the utterly fraudulent nature of the WMD claims and to make a stand on an issue of real consequence. And they didn’t. And we invaded. And 4,000+ American soldiers died. And 100,000 Iraqis died. And millions more Iraqis fled their homes. And we spent more than a trillion dollars. And we tortured people. And all that stuff is real. It won’t fade away like five days’ worth of round-the-clock coverage on Michael Jackson’s funeral.
So, will I pay for the NYT? I was hoping that I’d have it figured out by the time this post was through, but I still don’t know. I can refuse to pay for content that I view every day, which to me seems absurd given how much I value good journalism and given the fact that I’ve got enough money to pony up. Or I can send money to an organization for which, on an institutional level, I have zero respect. If NYT institutes a paywall that really can cut me off, I suppose I’d pay. And I’d send them a letter requesting that they fire Maureen Dowd. Wouldn’t make a difference, but it would make me feel better.