John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The quality of quality is strained
I feel honor-bound to go beyond that to tell you that, to my deep regret, it looks doubtful that quality pays anywhere.
Professor Philip Meyer concluded, as well as he could from fragmentary data, in The Vanishing Newspaper that on balance, high quality in newspapers increased profitability.
But a year ago Professor Doug Fisher argued — persuasively, I now realize — that the quality of journalism that is enhanced by thoroughgoing editing costs too much and returns too little. Yes, you prefer articles that are factually accurate, grammatical, focused, and organized. You complain about articles that aren’t.
But you are not willing to pay what it costs to produce better stuff.*
Don’t take it personally. You never were. For more than a century newspapers have been a delivery vehicle for advertising, and the news, figuratively as well as literally, rode on top of the ads. The tributes to the late Walter Cronkite mourned the passing of his standard of journalism as well, but CBS gave us that gilt-edged news operation because it was raking in money from ads for deodorant and toothpaste and automobiles. Advertising subsidized news.
The financial situation for journalism has become so desperate with the collapse of the advertising model that some established publications are toying with proposals to set up subscriber fees. My former colleague David Simon argued forcefully for this in “Build the Wall,” a Columbia Journalism Review article urging the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to erect a pay wall as a bulwark to preserve high-quality journalism.
Steve Buttry’s sardonic tweet in response to this article: “David Simon's next gritty HBO series will dramatize the deaths of newspapers who followed his advice.”
The likeliest consequences of erecting a pay wall are the departure of most of the readers and a further drop in revenue: The advertisers want to know that their ads are being seen by readers, who will vanish, and the remaining readers are unlikely to pony up enough to compensate for the lost advertising.
Newspapers are trapped between the accelerating collapse of revenue from print, though print is still where they make most of their money, and the failure to arrive at a sufficiently profitable business model for the Internet. In their desperation to keep going, they have had to sacrifice staff, coverage, scope, and quality. When the house is burning down, you get out with what you can.
Once journalism reconstructs itself on some new model that will produce enough income to support whatever level of reporting and writing and editing remains, there will surely be some publications, print or electronic, that are superior to others. But what quality exists will have to be subsidized, because you and I are not willing to pay for it on our own.
*Dearly as I love you all and grateful as I am for your praise and comments for this blog, I’m perfectly aware that if I asked you to pay to read it, you would melt away like Napoleon’s Grande Armee on the march back from Moscow.