Unlike a blacksmith

blacksmithIn a world where subs weren’t being stripped away to a rump, the “journalists are doomed like blacksmiths” cliché would be getting green-inked into oblivion. Sadly, we live in this world, with editing viewed as an expendible cost, leaving writers free to jerk out thoughtless comparisons on the future of their trade, and no one on hand to instill any quality. And so we find Chris Anderson talking to Der Spiegel, repeating the old journalist/blacksmith analogy:

In the past, the media was a full-time job. But maybe the media is going to be a part time job. Maybe media won’t be a job at all, but will instead be a hobby. There is no law that says that industries have to remain at any given size. Once there were blacksmiths and there were steel workers, but things change.

Der Spiegel, “Chris Anderson on the economics of Free”

Anderson’s problems with language start at the very beginning of the interview, when he rules out a bunch of perfectly servicable signifiers (“Sorry, I don’t use the word media. I don’t use the word news. I don’t think that those words mean anything anymore”) before helpfully declaring that “There are no other words.” But the blacksmith reference really riles me.

I’ve written before about why I find this trope unconvincing for journalism. Blacksmiths made a product which was muscled out by technical innovations that allowed functionally-identical (or better) items to be made cheaper. The work of a journalist can’t be mechanically substituted – it has to be performed by a person going through certain processes from research to writing to publication.

There are chunks of the print trade that have become technically obsolete, and as the move into digital publishing continues, more people are going to become unemployed: the paper and ink manufacturers, the warehouse employees, the newsagents. But journalism itself – the thing that is distributed – isn’t necessarily going to be stripped away by a change of format, and it’s rather embarrassing that journalists’ main angle on the electronic transition so far has been their own job security.

At the moment, newspapers and magazines are feeling pressure to retrench while they work out how to make money from electronic publishing. But one of the things that Anderson’s Free argument falls down on is that Free doesn’t seem to be quite the unalterable “force of gravity” he thinks – there are studies that show the people who make the most use of free stuff are also the people most willing to spend on similar material. And the people who spend are going to need something worthy of their cash, as John McIntyre writes:

Once journalism, print and electronic, has stabilized in a business model that no longer requires the ceaseless cuts in staff and reductions of product that have marked the past few years, it will begin to reconstruct itself. As it does so, some publishers will once again aspire to credibility and quality. Some, as always, will happily churn out junk so long as money can be made off it, but a few will seek more dignity. Some always do.

Those who so aspire will come to see that editing is indispensable and will begin to employ more editors as revenues permit. Those editors will not likely work in the structure that newspapers favored for more than a century, but whatever structure develops will take cognizance of unchanging principles:

Credibility rises from accuracy; accuracy requires checking.

Readers want clarity; clarity and focus come from editing.

Writers, who are not necessarily the best judges of their own work, benefit from a dispassionate analysis of their prose before publication.

The best writers benefit from editing; the less-accomplished require it.

You Don’t Say, “After the storm”

In fact, Anderson admits this much when he tells his interviewer that “If you have attention and reputation, you can figure out how to monetize it.” Media outlets that plan to retain their value had better retain – and pay for – their standards.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by caravinagre, used under Creative Commons.

Free! to the South West


My local area has its own experiment with the Free! model. Bristol 24-7 is a free-to-read online news portal, set up and operated by Chris Brown, and he’s just reported his first run-in with his print media rivals:

In a nutshell, [The Bristol Evening Post] insisted that I could not rewrite its content and publish it on my site, even with a credit in the first paragraph and a link back to the original source on its website. A particularly amusing complaint considering newspapers up and down the country have passed off re-writes as their own for years.

If you came into Paperhouse before May this year, then you know that I’ve had my concerns about the newsgathering and reporting techniques of, not the BEP specifically, but its sister papers in the region, so I’ve got a bit of sympathy with Brown’s dig here. Meanwhile, the Evening Post’s attempt to defend itself from competition by preventing other websites from summarising and linking to its contents (a technique that’s recently been given a speculative legal outing in the States) is simply asinine, entirely missing the operation of the link economy online and stretching copyright to the point of smashing discussion. Brown:

My reply to them was that if they really felt they had no need of free publicity from sites such as mine, which aims to provide people with a full range of news from ALL sources, then that was fine. I would in future take their own stories on myself, adding new angles and better balance of the issues, but would have no obligation to credit them as the original source. The fact is though is that I will continue to do that anyway, because I feel it is more honest and gives readers the chance to decide for themselves on the validity of what they are being presented.

Their attitude was not surprising, but goes to the heart of why the business of producing news is suffering so much in the internet age. My opinion is: you cannot ‘own’ news. […]

And yet – news isn’t just a thing awaiting discovery, out there where anyone can see it. It takes time, skill, funds and resources to make a good story – fixed costs that can’t be digitised out of existence – and as Brown rises to his Free! theme, it starts to sound as though he’s thought through every expense involved in news production and distribution, apart from the actual journalism:

On Wednesday, I went to listen to Chris Anderson from Wired magazine in the US speak at a Festival of Ideas evening at @Bristol. The main point I took was that in the old economy of producing “stuff” – material goods – the costs inevitably rose year on year. But in the digital age the same pattern is repeating in reverse, the cost of producing digital material and content is falling year on year.

What this means for journalists – and the people who still, I believe, want to read the news of what is happening in their community – is that the ability and costs to spread this news is falling closer and closer to zero. And this takes the power of “ownership” out of the hands of traditional news suppliers. We do not have to rely on them to find out what is happening in our city.

That is how it should be. News was never meant to be owned in a democracy. It is about what happens to us and the people around us. And we are free to share it as far and wide as we can.

Like Phil Chamberlain, I appreciate that Bristol 24-7 hasn’t launched itself on a slurry on unpaid interns. But for all the inspiring talk of democracy and freedom, what it actually seems able to offer is a long way short of the sort of detailed scrutiny that could earn those terms – and unless it begins to see “new angles and better balance of the issues” as essential parts of reporting rather than the optional extras that let you carry off someone else’s story, it’s hard to feel hopeful for the 24-7 vision of the future.

© Sarah Ditum 2009