BOSWELL REPORTS THAT Samuel Johnson once said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” There are many reasons to write, and those of us who have written for objects other than money will likely petition the blockhead designation. Having read about the 2013 imposition of pay walls, however, I begin to suspect Johnson was nearer the truth.
A pay wall compels Internet users to pay for online content. Beginning next year, no paid subscription equals no access to digital newspapers, just as it always had been in the case of the printed news. For years now the media industry has been confronted by a decline in print advertising revenue. Expenses can be cut only so much. The unmovable fact of journalism is that some irreducible number of writers and editors and photographers and designers and so on is required to keep the boat afloat, and that beyond a certain point of economizing the proposition of giving away the works is a piece of folly. So there you have it.
Of course the principle of downsizing did not begin with media. In every fold of the labour economy, the injunction of the age is to yield more and to settle for less. It may well be the case that editorialists, columnists, cartoonists, editors, reviewers and journalists are of a past age, until now tolerated and even indulged but in no way held worth paying for. It happens this notion has materialized as newspapers have assimilated unpaid labour to their business model. The blockheads, among whom are yours truly, have lined up by the furlongs to provide free-of-charge content to major for-profit media conglomerates.
The argument put forth on behalf of the pay wall is that anything worth reading is worth paying for. A nice try, that. The bedrock of the matter however is more elementary and therefore less amenable to clever manipulation, and I’ll put it as follows: anything which must be paid for must be paid for. There will always be a surplus army of gainfully employed (or, as in my case, self-employed) writers who can swell the ranks of the media’s voluntary content providers. We could use but don’t absolutely need the income of our media labour to feed our children or otherwise attend to our material needs.
To function as a media outlet, however, a newspaper will require that a certain number of persons set side their time each day to the exclusive production of something called the news. This assignment has to be paid for, as do the many other practical and human costs of putting together a daily paper. As matters stand, most papers now necessarily keep a small staff on salary but call also on the unpaid work of so-called bloggers, who under the old business model would most likely have been ignored or perhaps published now and then in the letters section. (It’s impossible that Huffington Post, for instance, could maintain its vast army of columnists on any foundation other than voluntary.)
I’ve no desire to, and no grounds for, petition over not being paid for my work, having freely agreed to provide it to national commercial media at no cost. But do allow me to state that I don’t diminish my effort or cut my corners or in any respect cheat my readers in any respect because I know there’s no paycheck at the end of the sentence. It may be that anything worth reading is worth paying for, but I object to the base implication that it’s not worth reading if you got it free. I won’t bear the cynicism of that rotten formulation. I concur that journalists deserve pay for their work, alongside plumbers and drivers and nurses and waiters and policemen and clerics and janitors and cooks. We blockheads just happen to be in a bad place, and perhaps a bad place of our own design, having not figured out how to make a wage out of our effort.
In the meanwhile I wonder how many will pay for ‘information’ in an age when there’s an abundance of the stuff to be had for the taking. Some of the optimists among us have suggested that the quality of journalism must necessarily rise along side this new demand for online subscriptions (and that their willingness to pay is contingent upon this happening), but as in the case of all optimistic declarations I take a skeptical view. There is no reason to imagine that financial considerations will not further drive down the quality of journalism, depending upon what one means precisely by ‘quality.’ Beyond these immediate considerations is the further prospect that the newspaper is obsolete and unnecessary, a quaint relic indulged only so far as the indulgence accrues no cost.