An American Editor

March 15, 2010

Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall

There have been lots of articles and comments regarding Rupert Murdoch’s views on making online news pay. Many commentators have suggested that putting the news behind a pay wall is bound to fail. I’m not so sure that Rupert is wrong. If we want original news reporting (i.e., news origination) and in-depth reporting rather than just the 10-second blurb TV gives us, we need to pay for it. Newsgathering is not free and costs need to be covered.

I subscribe to the New York Times. Daily delivery runs me about $50 per month. I am willing to pay for the subscription because I want to first know what is actually happening in my world before I start listening to the pundits tell me what those facts mean. I can’t imagine relying on Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Ariana Huffington, or Al Franken for the facts of what is happening in my world.

I rely on the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and similar papers because of the reputation for original reporting that they have built over the decades. Because I cannot do the original investigation myself, I do not know with absolute certainty that what they report as fact is truly fact — no more so than I can know any fact that I have learned from any source outside my own original investigation; instead, I rely on the reputations they have built as fact-gatherers. Similarly, I rely on the opinion shapers — the Becks, Limbaughs, Wills, Pitts’, Harrops, and other op-ed folk — to add interpretation from a philosophical or biased perspective to those facts the NYT, WSJ, and The Economist and the like have reported.

Sources like the Drudge Report are aggregators not originators; that is, they take from already published sources their “news.” Consequently, relying on an aggregator for one’s news does not address the problem of paying the originator of the news. News aggregators don’t have paid investigative, professional reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, let alone in Tajikistan — they are not news originators.

How can we rely on the veracity of the reported “facts” if the news originators are forced to give their content away free online? Ultimately, something has to give in a free economy; in the case of news, it is credibility and accuracy that ultimately gives. We are beginning to see the effect that free has on veracity and accuracy of reported “facts” online if a recent study of online magazines is to be believed.

The Columbia Journalism Review, as reported by the New York Times, recently surveyed the editing and fact-checking practices of magazine websites. Of the 665 magazines surveyed, 59% copyedit less rigorously or not at all the online content and 43% do less rigorous to no fact checking of the online content. The likelihood of these numbers decreasing with free content probably is nil; it is more likely that the numbers will increase.

Yet our discussions about our surrounding world have to start from some base. Granted they can start from one’s imagination in which we simply declare certain things as truth, but that seems to me to be a poor base from which to decide anything. News aggregators won’t have anything to aggregate and political and social commentators anything to comment on in the absence of news originators.

Not all newspapers either can be or should be behind paywalls. For example, my hometown newspaper is generally bereft of any real news origination and at best is worth $10 a year (although it costs closer to $200 a year by subscription), but that is because it lacks any real credibility and because most of its efforts are as a news aggregator, not originator. But there are certain newspapers, those that are true news originators, whose efforts should be behind a paywall. Their credibility, earned over decades of origination efforts, not only deserves financial support but warrants such financial support.

It has been reported that Internet and TV news (local and national/cable) are the leading sources for news today. Newspapers run distantly behind. On the surface, this indicates that paywall support is undeserved by newspapers. But the reality is different. TV news operations are scaling back on reporting; ABC News, for example, recently announced it was cutting its news gathering staff by one-third. Many of the covered stories originate in newspaper exposés, not in original TV reporting, and there is a significant difference in the depth of analysis provided in a 10-second TV blurb compared with a multipage newspaper article. Besides, TV news is behind a paywall; just an indirect one. Most of us get our TV via cable/satellite for which we pay a monthly fee. The cable/satellite operators pay the TV channels a per subscriber fee. And we also pay those same cable/satellite providers for Internet access. So why not also pay news originators for their work? Why should it be free just because it is on the Internet?

Many Internet news sites are nothing more than aggregators, not original news reporters. Without the originators, there would be no aggregation possible. More important, perhaps, are the findings of the Columbia Journalism Review. Its survey (see the New York Times article linked earlier) found that 16% of the respondents didn’t fact check online-only content at all and that of those that did fact check online content, 27% used a less-stringent process than they used for their print offering. How reliable can those sources be? Would you want your lawmakers or your doctors to make decisions based on unverified information?

Consequently, I’m inclined to think that Rupert is right. I’m not sure that the New York Post is worthy of being behind a paywall, but I have no doubt about the worthiness of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist, and the New York Times — that is newspapers with high credibility and well-deserved reputations as news originators. Keeping news originators alive and healthy is important to keeping alive and healthy democratic institutions.

Perhaps Rupert is right this time.

January 19, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Gatekeeper Role

A constant point of discussion and contention on ebook forums is publisher pricing. The discussion almost always devolves into a firm statement that publishers contribute little to the value of an author’s work and that the wave of the future is for authors to do everything that the publisher does themselves.

I don’t know if that is the wave of the future, but I do know that there is a definite misperception about what goes into the making of a successful book.

The argument against publishers goes along many threads, all fueled by objections to publisher release delays of an ebook, the ebook’s quality, and the price of the ebook, among others. (I offered a suggestion addressing the quality issue in an earlier post: A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty.)

The do-away-with-publishers solution rests on the assumptions that authors can establish their own websites to sell their books, are willing to sell those ebooks at a lower price, and will provide the good book quality readers want, and that readers will find them, making both the reader and the author winners. Supporters of this solution cite already well-known authors who are doing this, but fail to indicate how currently unknown authors would become known. Finding a good book to read is the crux of the problem.

Publishers, for better or worse, serve at least as initial gatekeepers, helping separate some of the wheat manuscripts from most of the chaff manuscripts. Publishers have an incentive for doing so: the need to make a return on investment. Contrast this with an author. Yes, authors hope to make money from their endeavors, or at least not embarrass themselves, but it is the rare author who can objectively look at his or her 2-year-long writing effort and proclaim it garbage not worth publishing. Besides, what does the author lose by putting it up on the Internet for 99 cents? Even if the book is good, how does the author go about selling 20,000 copies? Can the author afford to spend money to market the book? Will an author hesitate, thinking about what happens if he or she does invest his or her life savings but only sells 250 copies at 99 cents?

If a publisher thinks an author’s writing has potential, the publisher invests in the manuscript and the author, maybe not hundreds of thousands of dollars, but certainly thousands of dollars.

This effort and a publisher’s imprimatur is not equatable with great writing or storytelling. Rather, it is equatable with better writing and storytelling. And that is just what publishers do — gamble their money on the commercial viability of an author’s writing.

Publishers gamble that the time spent reviewing the manuscript initially and the money spent on editing (Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, an earlier post discusses editing), typesetting, design, marketing, and distribution will result in a profit for both the author and the publisher. (Disclosure: I am an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides editorial and production services to publishers and authors.)

What about the unknown author who goes directly to the reader? Granted that the self-publishing author’s job has gotten easier and cheaper with print on demand and the Internet, but easier and cheaper isn’t the same as manageable or successful, especially if the author wants more than to be able to say, “I am a published author.” Traditional publishers spend thousands of dollars on editorial and production related to a manuscript and on marketing. How many authors will reach into their own pocket to spend money that might not be recouped?

Publishers are selective. I agree that they do not always make a wise decision, but their screening makes my job as consumer infinitely easier. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on Authonomy.com, a slushpile website established by HarperCollins in 2008 where authors can upload their manuscripts and readers read and rate the manuscripts. HarperCollins editors then read the top 5 rated manuscripts each month. Since its start, about 10,000 manuscripts have been uploaded of which HarperCollins bought 4 (a rate of 0.0004%); everyone wants to be a great writer but not everyone is a great writer. I look at it as having saved me from at least 9,000 buying mistakes as a consumer. 

Publishers play a very important role as gatekeeper for most consumers. The notion that publishers should simply go away and authors should sell direct to consumer through their website is a great idea that isn’t viable, except, perhaps, for the already well-known author (who, it is worth noting, became well-known with the help of a publisher).

If you think a book you bought was bad and should not have been published, think about those manuscripts that didn’t pass the gatekeeper. Publishers save readers from the having to deal with the worst writing, not from dealing with bad writing.

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