Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jonesin' for that Googlejuice

The showing of The Wire's final season in Britain has revived the argument about the death of the American newspaper made so brilliantly by David Simon and his creative team in that final season.

On Saturday, The Guardian had an exclusive interview with Simon in which The Wire's creator seems to have sharpened his articulation of the stakes involved in the implosion of the American newspaper. He has also taken a hard line on whether or not newspapers should renew their efforts to actually charge money for their content:

[Simon] rejects the idea that newspapers should seek ways to embrace the new world of free information, arguing that they must urgently start charging money for content distributed online.

"Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model," says Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. "To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It's got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption."

The leader of the opposition to this notion is the grand poobah of media consulting -- Jeff Jarvis -- and his toxic (for news gatherers) bleating for the media to just surrender and addict itself to so-called "Googlejuice." Jarvis' glee in the crumbling of the old order has been essayed here -- and this recent dialogue with "Newsosaur" Alan D. Mutter in the Los Angeles Times gets much deeper into the weeds. But here's a succinct bit of the rebuttal in the Simon interview:

Jeff Jarvis, a new media consultant who writes a column for the Guardian, said: "The traditionalists are trying to transplant elements of the old business model into a new business reality ... when you put your content behind a wall, you lose more than you gain. You lose a lot of readers and the advertising revenue associated with them, you lose the ability to be discovered by new readers, you lose out to free competitors, of whom there'll be an unlimited supply, and you lose influence, because you're taken out of the conversation."

The article also messes up the alleged lesson of the failure of TimesSelect.Why did the New York Times' attempt to charge fail? Because the Times bowed to the alleged cult of journalistic celebrity and put something that's as free as the air (the opinions of its big time columnists) behind a pay wall -- along with another perk that I'd wager at least 40 % of Times readers can access in other venues (its archive.)

The entire model for Google and other aggregators is dependent on the most valuable thing that the Times does: its daily in-depth reporting in real time. That wasn't behind the pay wall, yet it is the thing for which it and other print/web journalism could charge a substantial amount. It is, in essence, the juice that runs Google and the Huffington Post and other aggregators. What's valuable to Google and other aggregators is having the best journalism available instantaneously and for free. They can manufacture opinion and buy up archives. But if aggregators lose access to the best journalism, their news efforts take a huge hit. And to make up for it, they would need to (a) pay or (b) start up competing news organizations. Either way, quality journalism gets funded.

Simon is on the right track when he observes "the internet does froth and commentary very well, but you don't meet many internet reporters down at the courthouse."A lot of the Jarvis model of future journalism is built on pushing the great mass of new bloggers and amateurs -- via foundation grants, say, or quasi newspapers -- to eventually professionalize along the lines of the new business model. Could happen. Likely not. And, anyway, in the meantime, we need the journalism we have -- and have to make it better.

Google page image courtesy of zoolcar9 under a Creative Commons license.

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