Tuned In

Doing Less With Less: What Are You Willing to Give Up from Journalism?

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I met a neighbor at a party last weekend and mentioned that I write for TIME. This led to a conversation about the New York Times–specifically, how many typos she’s noticed in the paper lately. They must be getting rid of all their copy editors! Yeah, I said, they’re probably stretched pretty thin–more copy to edit, in the paper and online, and fewer people to do it–and they’re in the middle of a big round of layoffs.

I know, she said, it’s terrible! Anyway, she continued, we’re dropping the daily paper and just getting the weekend from now on. I’m not going to keep giving all that money to a newspaper that’s riddled with typos!

There you pretty much have the dilemma of the old-line media outfit today. Your readers expect old-fashioned editorial standards, and they want you to maintain them with a new-fangled revenue stream.

And here’s the thing. Yes, I’ll admit I had a sarcastic comeback: “Yeah, that’ll really help them beef up their copy desk!” But really my neighbor had a perfectly good point. Why should she support with her money a product that she’s not satisfied with? You could make the argument that she’s only further beggaring the Times by cutting back her subscription, but if maintaining the subscription isn’t giving her a satisfactory product, why shouldn’t she?

It goes against my interests as a journalist to say it, but that kind of response is entirely reasonable—if you’re honest with yourself about the consequences. It’s true that technology can boost productivity; it may be true that papers like the Times should be finding a better business model. It is also true that you get what you pay for, to an extent: no one is going to copyedit the New York Times on a volunteer basis for the pleasure of it. But you could decide that, if paying full price, in the current economic climate, doesn’t get you the level of service you want anyway, you may as well choose to pay less and get less.

When journalists say “you get what you pay for,” there’s often a moralistic tone to it that does no one any good. No one’s going to save journalism by hectoring people. Instead, journalists, and their audience, should look at it as a simple practical question: as it stands today, if you pay less, eventually you will get less. (Assuming, that is, no one invents a new means of subsidizing journalism without you paying anything.) Are you OK with that?

It’s an important question, without an automatic answer. A few days ago, The Awl’s Tom Scocca and Choire Sicha wrote a dialogue about a recent Times public-editor column by Clark Hoyt. One of the controversies Hoyt had written about was a case in which a Times freelancer had written about her boyfriend’s restaurant.

I won’t belabor the details, but Scocca and Sicha made an outstanding larger point about the Times’ freelancer guidelines: the paper is using far more freelancers to cut costs, yet expects them to abide by the same rigid guidelines as full-time staffers. But one thing that makes it easier for full-time staffers to follow those guidelines is, well, being paid a living wage by the Times. Which the Times either no longer wants to do or can no longer afford to do.

Scocca’s summary is devastating:

You want ethically impeccable writers? Then don’t expect them to have to hustle for a living. Don’t blame them for getting bought, let alone for the potential appearance of having previously been bought, when you’re too cheap to buy them yourself. … We are in tough Times. But stop pretending. The Times has lowered its standards. Lower standards are cheaper than high standards.

The key line there? “Stop pretending.” Maybe what the Times, and readers like my neighbor, are tacitly doing is reaching some kind of silent agreement: we are willing to do (and to read) cheaper news with lower standards, and in turn pay less for it (as employers and as consumers).

That’s an entirely defensible and adult decision. But media institutions (and, I believe, a lot of their audience) just are not comfortable saying that flat-out: “We’ve got to do it cheaper. So you get less quality control. That’s how it is. Deal?” Instead, like corporate managers everywhere, they’d rather officially subscribe to the idea that, to quote David Simon in The Wire, newspapers will just somehow do “more with less.” People will buckle down! We’ll cut the waste! The scientists will invent something!

The problem with that thinking is not that it’s hypocritical. (Again, a moral judgment that’s beside the point.) It’s that it gets in the way of having a simple, practical conversation about what we’re willing to trade off.

So there’s less money for professional journalism. Maybe, say, I’m willing to read a few more misspellings in exchange for another body working in the overseas bureau. (You’ll notice from even a brief reading of Tuned In that this blog is not copy edited.) Maybe I’m willing to accept cheesy travel coverage (or, um, reviews of vapid reality shows) if it pays the bills for local news. Maybe I want less national news and more local news in my paper, or vice versa. (The fact that different people will want precisely the opposite priorities—and some will cancel their subscriptions if you disappoint them, leaving you even less money—makes the call all the harder.)

These are all rational trade-offs. But they are trade-offs, and we should acknowledge it. Where are you willing to give less to get less?