Why news should cost. A lot.

The demand to get reporting for free is nothing new. And it’s still stupid.

I’m a mild blogoskeptic. Blogs are a harmless hobby, and I obviously like them too. But I’m not sure that they represent a revolution in political argument or that they affect politics all that much. I suspect that most time spent reading blogs would be better spent reading history or watching a good film. So I guess I’m the resident skeptic here: a role rarely popular but often entertaining and occasionally useful. You judge.

For now, consider two blogosphere shibboleths: that news should be free, and that technology has changed fundamentally our attitude towards intellectual property.

Take Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, more than 80 years old. (Better, buy it. It’s much more important than the rest of this post.)

Chapter 21 reminds us of two important truths. First: news should cost. It should cost a lot, and we should pay for it. Second, those of us who consume it have always been too damn cheap to realize this.

Saith the Lippmann:

This insistent and ancient belief that truth is not earned, but inspired, revealed, supplied gratis, comes out very plainly in our economic prejudices as readers of newspapers. We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognize as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint. We have accustomed ourselves now to paying two and even three cents on weekdays, and on Sundays, for an illustrated encyclopedia and vaudeville entertainment attached, we have screwed ourselves up to paying a nickel or even a dime. Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper. He expects the fountains of truth to bubble, but he enters into no contract, legal or moral, involving any risk, cost or trouble to himself. He will pay a nominal price when it suits him, will stop paying whenever it suits him, will turn to another paper when that suits him.

Bloggers often acknowledge that reporting (whatever that is) takes skill. But they commonly slight how much skill, and what kinds, and how much sheer labor goes with the skill. Good beat reporters spend years figuring out whom to call for the crucial fact, how to talk to them, when not to believe them. In gathering news they have a kind of patience that intellectuals lack, and undervalue. (Forget the romance of Deep Throat: Woodstein broke Watergate by having a list of nearly a hundred sources, and calling them every day.) They know that a lot of reporting requires face-to-face legwork, which is why foreign correspondents are valuable and why Jayson Blair’s fabrication of datelines was a big deal. Most important: reporters serve long apprenticeships in the craft of engaging us, drawing in readers looking for excuses to skim or skip. This is phenomenally easier said than done, for reasons of character and professional ethos, not just skill. (Bloggers have a limited readership for a reason. I’m not the first one to start a post with stuff about myself, not a gripping story or, God forbid, a fact.) Truth is indeed earned, as Lippmann wrote, and as the lady in Fame says, reporters pay for it–in sweat.

Not all useful information is reported. Some is subsidized by taxpayers to facilitate public business, and takes the form most relevant, and most interesting, to those doing such business. Some comes from public-spirited groups hoping to bring truth before the public. This is called propaganda. Some comes from elected officials making persuasive arguments for their deeply held beliefs. This is also called propaganda. There’s nothing wrong in principle with either government reports or propaganda, but since little of it interests us, we come to find out about it in one of two ways: either we seek it out, and learn what we already want to learn, or somebody tells us that it’s actually worth a look. The people who do the latter most reliably are–again–working journalists, which means paid journalists, which means paid by someone: readers, or worse. We can of course rely on people people doing reporting for free, independent of professional training and journalistic organizations. On average, the result of such reporting-as-hobby relates to professional journalism as a soapbox racer relates to a Lexus, and for exactly the same reasons.

Or, most obviously, news can, and is, be brought to us by hucksters who realize that those who buy news buy other things too. Consumerism and citizenship may not be the same, but nobody who’s worked at a periodical can forget that consumers and citizens are the same. When I interned at Harper’s, our ad base proved that we were read by people prone to buy books about how the polity was going down the tubes, and men seeking submissive Asian brides by mail. (Notice I don’t say this was two different groups.)

Many of my colleagues would see this as a policy problem. Off the cuff, there are several ways of subsidizing the public good known as engaging, well-reported information. Libraries remain terrific. The Swedish policy (or former policy; haven’t kept track) of giving block grants to local newspapers should be considered. It’s not absurd to consider giving each citizen a hundred bucks to spend on newspaper subscriptions, paper or cyber (or no more absurd than third-class postage). The idea that you can pay for web content not just by subscribing but by watching a video ad seems to be spreading, and that’s good.

But Lippmann always knew when–and better, why–to mix policy analysis with good old fashioned moralism. The main barrier to a policy solution is that it would require self-indictment: as individuals, we’re too cheap, and have always been too cheap, to value news at what it costs. The news section of the New York Times’ National Edition alone contains, conservatively, 70 thousand or so words: a shortish book (and not a bad one). The astonishing thing is not that we think it should be free online, but that we expect it to cost only a buck in print–and less by subscription. Our denial about where news comes from is an old and serious intellectual vice, magnified only slightly by a new technology.

Short version: this will always be free. So will this. And this. This costs, in money or compulsory ad watching. This is, amazingly, free for now–in spite of the work, intelligence, and perseverance that went into reporting it–but will cost in a few days.

You takes your choice. But only if you pays your money. Pony up.

UPDATE: Mike O’Hare suggests that I’m ignoring the difference between price and cost, and in particular issues of marginal cost. As he puts it:

The news costs a lot to gather and provide, and it’s worth it. However, this is also true of the cathedral of Chartres and Central Park and clean air, but the correct price for those to consumers is zero for quite fundamental and non-ideological reasons: a safe rule of thumb in these matters is that everything should be made available at marginal cost, and the marginal cost of reading a newspaper on the web, given that there’s no less of it for you if I do, is a goose egg.

Betting on my economic illiteracy is normally a good way to get rich, but not this time. This is in fact one of the few policy issues that I know reasonably well. I wrote a thorough paper on it in college, complete with a chart showing that almost all the cost of producing a newspaper comes from the first copy, marginal costs rapidly falling. (Now Lippmann may not have been clear on this, having taken no micro. Glad to see this is one matter on which I know more than he. It may be the only one.)

But the question is: who pays for the first copy? In the case of Central Park, the public has underwritten the whole shebang, both by buying land and by funding (inadequate) upkeep. Cathedrals and great temples were funded by kings, lords, bishops, and such in order to impress people, show their power, inflict their esthetic views on others, and/or curry favor with their chosen deities. (Slate was founded by Guillaume Gates, Baron de Microsoft, on such a basis, and even so specializes in commentary, not beat reporting.) But the New York Times can’t rely on a lord’s vanity to keep reporters on payroll.

My intended point was moral, not economic–put differently, not about policy but about its preconditions. We won’t start to ASK the policy question until we realize that these are valuable commodities–as the blogosphere tends to deny. If consumers were really thinking, “wait,the marginal cost should be infinitesimal even though the first-copy costs are large,” they would think through the policy and maybe pay for some solution. But if, as is more likely, they think “it’s free, and darned right since it’s just slinging facts around,” that’s not a victory for either economics or public spirit.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.