The Price of Truth

Sure, information wants to be free. Alas, it's not.

IN OUR BUSINESS, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting some expert waxing on about what ails journalism and how to fix it. Gratingly, many of those who tout prescriptions are the same people who let the patient get critical. And the new-media pundits whose analysis was fresh five years ago now feel like a Greek chorus that won't shut up after the curtain's down and the seats are empty. (Or, to retweet @theatavist, a.k.a. writer Evan Ratliff: "Maybe the future of journalism is just an endless vacillating din of banal bluster and whinging about the future of journalism.") We'll save you the agony; here's the Masterplots version:

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  1. In the first half of 2009, 123 TV news shows were canceled, 106 newspapers folded, 110 bureaus closed, 556 magazines died, and 12,000 journalists lost their jobs. These numbers are likely to get much worse.
  2. The old model, where journalism was heavily subsidized by advertising, is over. The recession has made the divorce faster and more acrimonious, but the knives were already out. And online advertising is turning out to be a harsh mistress. Consider: Even as the NYTimes.com readership grew 7 percent last year, online ad sales began dropping. As for the big online-only shops, they either lose money, are subsidized by parent companies, or feed off venture capital.
  3. Overpaid anchors; if it bleeds, it leads; papers that acted omniscient but practiced omission—the MSM's bad apples and bad practices, combined with industry upheaval and the stench of WMDgate, created a mood so toxic that even four years after Judy Miller's downfall, cheers seem to go up every time a reporter loses a job. That most journalists toil on for the public good—despite long hours, generally low pay, and a terribly bleak future—gets lost.
  4. Love The Daily Show, HuffPost, All Things Considered, Kevin Drum? We do, too, but much of what you're consuming is built from reporting (read: going to places, talking to people, and digging through documents) done elsewhere. Or as Rachel Maddow said at her MoJo fundraiser in April, "Without the David Corns of the world, there is no show. [MoJo DC bureau chief] David Corn can do his job without me, but I can't do my job without him."
  5. Reporting takes money. Duh. Yet we keep hearing that "journalism will survive the death of its institutions," so allow us to point out: not if that means the end of its resources. Indie bloggers, citizen journalists, pro-am reporting have dramatically expanded the public debate. But in the end, if there is 50 or 30 or 20 percent as much money being spent paying people to do consistent, reliable reporting, we'll have a corresponding reduction in consistent, reliable reporting. Not to mention fact-checking, editing, and presentation. (Want to see the first drafts of our investigative pieces? Trust us, no.)
  6. Anyone who claims to know where to get the money should be locked in a room and forced to read blogger Jim Romenesko's entire death-of-media archives. Advertising? Less and less. Online subscriptions? Sure—but how many of the New York Times' remaining 550,000 daily print subscribers will pay the same $770 for a digital product? Bringing back paywalls? Expect it to happen, but whether it'll work...
  7. So what about these big, nonprofit save-journalism projects we've heard so much about? We did a back-of-the-envelope tally of the marquee ones—ProPublica, HuffPost's I-team, Knight Foundation grants, etc. Including multiyear grants, and even padding the reported amounts substantially, we're talking $100 million. That's not even half what it takes to run the New York Times' news-gathering operation for a year. Part of the problem is that—take it from a nonprofit journalism shop with 34 years' experience—institutional funders for media are few, generally cautious, and (with some laudable exceptions) lacking in transparency. And as bad as it is for national operations, the problems become more pronounced for local muckrakers: Just try to raise money for investigative reporting from the Chamber of Commerce crowd.

So where does that leave us? All the honest pundits will give you the same answer: No &$#@ing idea. We may well end up with a society that simply doesn't have the quantity and quality of journalism we've enjoyed. Other countries don't; though those that run well also have functioning regulatory systems and raucous, diverse, parliamentary oppositions—not our two-party compromise machine.

But before we resign ourselves to whinging and vacillating, let's try to rewrite this tragedy. Many Mother Jones readers already help by writing checks beyond the price of a subscription; it's those checks­ that pay for our reporters and earn the attention of the Times and others who have spotlighted our reader-supported model as one promising avenue for journalism.

What it's going to take is for many more Americans to decide that quality reporting—be it on local school boards or Iraq or climate negotiations—is as vital to their lives as box scores and celebrity spats. As media theorist Clay Shirky recently wrote, "Journalism is about more than dissemination of news; it's about the creation of shared awareness," and ultimately the ability to act on that awareness. Because make no mistake: This is a zero-sum equation. Less journalism = less accountability. Corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and propaganda thrive when reporting dies. That's not a price we're prepared to pay.

Update: Clara breaks down the cost of a blockbuster investigation published by the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica here.

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