On the news

I grew up reading the Washington Post. I started with the funny pages, then gradually explored the local and national news, eventually settling in to a steady diet of politics—a fascination no doubt encouraged by my upbringing just outside the beltway. Growing up, the Post was how I learned about the rest of the world.

When I first moved to New York, I ordered the Sunday Post to be delivered every week. For me, “the Post” was synonymous with “The News”—I couldn’t imagine getting the news from anywhere else. On Sunday mornings, I pored through the entire paper with a pot of coffee at my side. I only relinquished that ritual after discovering that getting a paper delivered in Brooklyn meant rising at 6:00 am to pluck it from the news boy’s fingers; by sunrise, any paper left on the stoop had vanished.

Since then my news reading habits have gone through several more revisions: first, to reading exclusively online, then gradually switching to the New York Times, not only owing to the fact that New York was my new hometown, but also because the Times web experience was and remains vastly superior to that of the Post. I no longer read only during the morning’s coffee or on a brief subway ride, but rather check in at all hours of the day. And as my love for the news has deepened, my appetite has grown to include all manner of other sources—ProPublica, Democracy Now, TalkingPointsMemo, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, and countless blogs.

Meanwhile, I’ve grown more particular about the kind of news I want. I want a reading experience that defends the news from the circus that online advertising creates. I want good storytelling and analysis, not naked facts. I want news that admits and defends its point of view (and acknowledges that there is a truth to be uncovered), not news that parrots the party line while making claims to objectivity. I want long essays on the events at Fukushima and the consequences for nuclear power going forward, not shrieking dispatches of each new fire or setback. I want a history of American engagement in Libya, putting the events of the past few weeks in context. I want twenty thousand words on the recession and its effects on the middle class, not another lone statistic about the unemployment rate. I want thoughtful, investigative journalism that exposes the ways in which our government is failing us, so that we can make it better.

And I am willing to pay for it. The news is expensive; this much we have always known. Thousands of reporters, researchers, fact-checkers, copyeditors, production managers, photographers, web developers, designers—not to mention boots on the ground in perilous, hard to reach locations—are required to bring the news to my desk every day, and I know full well that each of those people must be paid to do the work that they do. I donate to ProPublica, I gave to TPM’s fundraising drives back when they were just a few people in Josh Marshall’s living room, I voluntarily pay more than is required for Readability—and yet I remain deeply ambivalent about paying for the Times. Why?

First, I resent the pay structure that the Times proposes: it is vastly cheaper for me to subscribe to the Sunday paper (a habit long ago abandoned) than to read the news on all my various devices. I can think of no other reason for this strategy than to protect the already dwindling print subscription model; as such, the paywall is a tactic for the way down—a means to temporarily sustain a business that is destined to fail eventually. I find it difficult to fund a ship when its own captain admits that it’s sinking.

Moreover, the Times paywall does not map to my reading behavior. I don’t read a single source for the news—I read thousands. I consume the news from all directions—from venerable institutions like the Times, to blogs that obsess over particular topics, to tweets from witnesses, and every imaginable source in between. I want news that is the aggregate of all these sources, that admits all of these varying (and often contrary) perspectives. Erecting paywalls between these locations misunderstands the ecosystem that each story participates in. The value I find in the news today is in its connectedness—in the ways in which often divergent sources come together to create a story—not its solitary authority.

The Times response to this is a porous paywall—what some have called a pay “fence,” either disparagingly or encouragingly I cannot tell. But I find the rules around how many articles you can view (and under which conditions) far too convoluted for most people to parse. People—myself included—frequently part with their money on the web, but only when it’s easy. If iTunes has taught us anything, it’s that easy beats free. For the Times to have spent two years working on a payment mechanism and missed that lesson does not bode well.

Similarly, the high price of their subscriptions seems to stem from the assumption that they will be the sole paper anyone subscribes to; they have presumed their position as paper of record. But the very concept of a paper of record no longer fits: there can be no singular story in a system of communication as diverse as the internet. In fact, it would be irresponsible of me to get my news from just one source. I still can’t forgive the Times for their negligent coverage of WMDs in the lead up to the Iraq War; but more importantly, I can’t forgive all the people who read only the Times and assumed that was all they needed to know. The world we live in is far too complicated, and the consequences of these decisions far too great, to trust the news from a single institution—even one as routinely great as the Times.

So what does this new world of news look like? It looks like Instapaper, or Readability, or perhaps Flipboard, if Flipboard can learn how to aggregate information in a way that makes sense. It looks like 1-Click, or Kickstarter, or Amazon’s singles. It looks like tools for making timelines or managing primary sources. It looks like dispatches from people on the ground. It looks like startups we haven’t seen yet, because a few smart people (perhaps exiles from newsroom layoffs) are right at this moment looking at the reactions to the Times and starting to plan for how they can do better. It’s both dispersed and connected, social but not inane, reliable and diverse. It looks like many things, because there isn’t going to be a single way forward; the future is, as ever, more complicated than the past.

It’s impossible to recognize a tipping point until it’s behind you, but I suspect that we may be able to look back and see something shift right around now—see the point at which the way we read broke ranks with the way the news is made. We are no longer monogamous readers, loyal to a single source; rather, we read voraciously, looking for patterns, teasing out the things that matter to us, making connections, and then (often) writing about them ourselves. We are consumers of news, not The News.

I may yet pay for the Times, but I will do so only to demonstrate my willingness to pay for quality journalism, whatever the source. I’m following the path of the readers, confident that there are those among the reporters and editors and fact-checkers who will find a way to join us—confident that in the system of capitalism we have yoked ourselves to, we can find a way to support readers and writers. My money is on the table, for whoever can reach it.