What we will lose with "free" news

I went to Barnes & Noble the other day and bought a copy of “The Gun” by C. J. Chivers.

I could have waited to buy it used, or borrowed a copy, but I felt it was important to buy one because I want Chivers to get some money from me for his efforts.

Chivers’ book is good — a history of the Kalashnikov Rifle — but why I admire his work, and want him to prosper from it, is more because of his work as a reporter for the New York Times.

Chivers is the Times’ battlefield correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan. His reporting is brilliant. There’s no other word for it. He works with the troops, takes fire with the troops, and reports amazingly afterwards.

 If one story summarizes his work it is this one (click!) in which he covers the aftermath of a sniper incident in which a soldier was shot in the head. The story is all about the medic who worked on the soldier.

Brilliant doesn’t describe it. “Better than Ernie Pyle” comes close. When people ask me what good journalism is like, I show them this story.

But the Times can’t pay Chivers to do this kind of work if we don’t buy the Times’ paper. That’s why I subscribe. Not just because when I read the paper I always find something Iwouldn’t have if I read it on line. Not just because I’m an old fart who likes a printed page.

But because the Times is a system, an infrastructure, that provides us information that we wouldn’t get otherwise, that bloggers can’t duplicate, that “new media” don’t do. Chivers’ work could be run on the Internet only, but then it would be one of a hundred million or so web site that nobody would see. Yeah, sure, maybe it would go viral, but what are the odds?

In the Times printed paper, millions see it today. Not thousands.

The Times is part of a larger infrastructure of newspapers and paid news gatherers around this country that is rapidly going away as advertisers dry up, free web sites take newspapers’ news and siphon off our customers, and reporters positions disappear. One of the Las Vegas papers has hired a company to chase after news accumulation web sites and force them to pay, and I think all newspapers, including mine, ought to be doing that.

Chivers isn’t a blogger. He’s a reporter who does a hell of a job. He deserves to be paid. If you read his stuff, you should pay him. Unless you are OK with the people who buy what your produces not paying your boss. How long would Larry Miller stay in business if nobody paid to watch movies in his theaters or paid for the cars they drive off his lots?

And, no, you can’t borrow my book. Go buy one.

And when the Times goes to paid access to their web site, sign up and pay. Better yet, subscribe now. I guarantee, not a day won’t go by you don’t find something in the paper worth the cost.

And, no, nobody at the Times paid me to write this, but if they ever make it possible for me to tell Chivers how much I admire his work, I’ll take it.

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6 Responses to What we will lose with "free" news

  1. Doug Gibson says:

    Thanks Charlie, you’ve done a great job pointing out why we need these reporters. Isn’t John Burns also with the Times? He is a great reporter as well

  2. Kris Baker says:

    …and even IF everyone paid for a few online subscriptions, there’s another lurking danger: sites like examiner.com, who have thousands of pay-per-click volunteers rewriting YOUR content, and presenting it as their own.

    Time magazine did an excellent story on them, which confirmed my long-time suspicions:

    Others tell their own experiences, working for (right-wing) Anschutz:

  3. dan s. says:

    Charlie, instead of presenting this as an either-or choice (free or paid, print or internet), I wish you would acknowledge that all of these types of media have their niche and that each of them does something that the others can’t or won’t.

    The City Weekly covers stories that are too controversial for the Trib. Should I refuse to read it just because it’s free?

    Nate Silver out-did the traditional media in analyzing objective data about politics, and he’s now been assimilated into the Times web site–with no registration required to read his blog there.

    And of course, if you want to understand Ogden City politics, you need to read Weber County Forum because your newspaper is afraid to tell the truth about Godfrey.

    The old system where the traditional media had a monopoly on deciding what’s news was not always a good thing. It allowed them to sell us the Iraq war, among other atrocities. I’m glad we now have more diversity of sources for national news, and I look forward to the day when your newspaper will no longer have the power to decide what is and isn’t news here in Ogden.

  4. Kris Baker says:

    dan, not ALL media “sold us the Iraq war”.

    In fact, most media I paid attention to, were trying to educate the public about what was going on – as much as they could, with the available information. Bravo to them!

    Unfortunately, since then, the right wing has demonized The New York Times while their reporter, Judith Miller, was one of the strongest proponents of the war.

    Isn’t that funny?
    The right wants to demonize the Times, Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame — while they still contend that the Saddam Hussein had WMDs, thanks to their pet girl, NYT’s Judith Miller.

    If you look closely at Salt Lake City weekly, you’ll find that many of their staff are journalists. Not all, but many. Their articles are (mostly) better-written and sourced than many alt weeklies.

    Then again, it was a blogger in Vancouver WA who wasthe first person to publicly state in print, that Bethany Storro’s acid attack story matched her initials.

    But they’re all piggy-backers. Neither the Salt Lake City Weekly or bloggers would have anything to write about UNLESS they piggybacked onto stories initially reported in the press. They can all operate outside journalism, while the legitimate press does have to protect sources (even when they don’t want to).

  5. Bob Becker says:


    You wrote: “Neither the Salt Lake City Weekly or bloggers would have anything to write about UNLESS they piggybacked onto stories initially reported in the press. “

    That’s not true, I think, of the City Weekly, which does a great deal more than simply piggy-back on stories initially reported by main stream media. SLW does, IMHO, at the moment the best investigative reporting in all of N. Utah. And there are blogs run by professional journalists which break news with some regularity.

    You’re more right about blogs that aggregate MSM news and then comment. I read for example WCF daily, and have been known to post a thing or two on it. But as I keep reminding folks there who bash the SE regularly, a great deal t of what appears on WCF, and what people comment on there, are stories that first appeared in the SE.

    That said, Dan is also right that the alternative media like WCF do occasionally break news that (a) subsequently is reported in the SE — e.g. it was Dan, not the SE, who used the public records law to unearth the Godfrey administration’s emails discussing how important it was not to let the Council know that the Administration was laundering payments for a gondola study through UTA. And (b) the alternative media does occasionally cover stories that the SE [inexplicably in my opinion] does not consider news [e.g. why the city provided at no cost a city owned venue for a political fund raiser the money from which went to support administration-backed Council candidates and even to assist the Mayor's re-election campaign].

    Still, on the whole, Charlie is right: newspapers matter. A lot. And people who think they matter ought to be willing to pay for them and their content. Otherwise they will die. Many have already. And no, I am not sanguine about how a nation with few or no newspapers will fare relying exclusively on alternative media instead.

    Besides, there’s another advantage to paying. Occasionally, when I’ve criticized the SE in its comment columns or on WCF, someone asks me [generally unhappily] who the hell I am to criticize professional journalists, what credentials I have to presume to criticize the paper and its editors. I get to tel them this: “I have the best possible credentials to be a critic of the paper. I’m a subscriber.”

  6. Kris Baker says:

    Bob, I’m one of the few: online-only subscriber.
    In other words, I’m paying for what I could obviously get for free.
    Why? Because the delivery person could never find our home (hidden away in the middle of a subdivision!) Online’s better.

    But I’ve found no way to subscribe online-only at the Tribune.

    I see WCF as a hair-pullin’ partner to the SE. I see gather.com and examiner.com as intellectual property thieves. Or worse.

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