Getting what we pay for…

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James Surowiecki says it perfectly.  He’s talking about the online news media and  it’s small income stream overwhelming the business model of the traditional print media.

For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

When the melamine scandal erupted last year and hundreds of American pets were dying from tainted Chinese dog and cat food, inciting real fear that it could affect humans too (and yes, it did – hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese babies died), the New York Times had dozens of staff on the ground in China’s manufacturing district within hours.  They talked to the plant managers before word even came down there was a problem.  The managers blithely showed the Times stringers and staffers the stocks of melamine, explained proudly how it was used and what it was used for.  This all happened before the US or Chinese government had even reacted.  A few days later there was a multi-page report outlining the situation in meticulous detail, in such detail in fact, that it defined the possible responses of the Chinese government.  They couldn’t outright deny it, there it was in print, they couldn’t claim it was isolated to a few plants, because the Times easily found a dozen or more.  For US readers, a fearsome problem was confronted, then identified and within days we had a gripping report.

It is easy to imagine a world in which this wouldn’t have happened, in which there was no NY Times with dozens of staff and stringers available to dive into the story (and an editorial staff smart enough to pull out all stops).  But it is a much smaller world, and one where problems like this can get dragged out and washed out and tired out before we ever come to a (much weaker) resolution.  I love the blogs, but Surowiecki is right – without the original source material of the Times and the Post, of Newsweek and Time, those blogs will fill up and out with opinion pieces until they are unreadable.

I’m not sure what is going to happen, but I am sure that people want the type of journalism the NY Times provides.  Eventually, we will find a way to once again pay for it.

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