Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pressed into Service

This was in the Guardian CiF yesterday, 7 April.
Sorry for the silence of the last few days, I was locked out of the site by Google's Robot which decided that this was a spam blog... robocop showed his failings and it took a week to reinstate.


Twenty-four years ago, I switched on my first modem. It was a treacly 300 bps, but it made me a speed hog then for those who knew about these things. Most did not have a clue. In the early days, email and computers gave an early-adopting journalist comparative advantages over the two-fingered typists.

When I first moved to New York, the British press corps there used to get up early, read the tabloids, rewrite their juiciest stories and be in Costello's, which was the de facto press club, by mid-day, knocking a few back while they discussed whether to carry on drinking all day or break it up with a round or two of golf. I was freelance, but enterprising. I could sell the same story, judiciously rewritten, to papers across the globe, from Australia to Fiji to Britain, with direct input into their systems.

And then things got connected. As the internet spread, foreign editors would already have read their tab sources by the time their alarm clocks rang. They wanted more, and as they developed their own online editions, the hacks were chained to their computers to meet the insatiable demand for material. Staff journalists' workloads soared. Costello's closed.

For my part, I would pitch a story to Australia and find they had already lifted it from the Guardian or the Independent. But I was compensated because of the new online venues available for computer-savvy types.

But now the times they are a-changing beyond all recognition. Newspapers are shrinking in size even faster than their circulations, and more and more people are getting their news from the net. This is a mixed blessing.

It may come as a surprise to many commenters on CiF who are prepared to bang away at keyboards pro-bono or pro-malo around the clock, but many of us write for a living.

Few of the new outlets pay enough for the investigation, scrupulous fact checking and sourcing that was part of the craft of good journalism. In the old days of investigation, the job was to investigate allegations and conspiracy theories in a highly critical manner. Now it is to rush into publication with it, or repeat a story that suits you that someone else has rushed into print. Anonymity and pseudonymity should be a warning of tendentious fact-free content, but who can tell? Who can sue?

As the viral success of swift-boating, or of doctored photos showing Obama holding a telephone upside down, demonstrates, fact-checking is becoming a craft secret. As the old British adage has it "if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys." And if you do not pay at all, you get people with agendas, causes or desperate needs for tenure on a life raft of publications.

Isaac Asimov, in between Stakhanovite literary productivity, was an opinionator of Renaissance breadth. A resolute sceptic, he had views on the Bible, science, Gilbert & Sullivan, pornography, history and the rest of human life. But his standard letter when asked to contribute something for free, sought an assurance that everyone else in the process, the editors, publishers, printers and publicists were also forgoing payment.

Like many other writers, my work appears in more places and countries than ever before, with readerships that in quantity and quality should make me very happy. Getting paid for it would make me happier still. It is rare indeed that anyone asks for permission to reprint and a blue moon event when anyone offers to pay.

Once an article has appeared on the net, there are no residuals like for films or TV programmes or music. In the case of music, it is not struggling musicians, but major corporations who have fought viciously and tenaciously to get their cut, and the artists and songwriters are the collateral beneficiaries of corporate avarice.

In the past, the deal was that print publishers paid their writers from the proceeds of their advertising revenues. Now, those revenues are going to the Googles, Yahoos and other internet giants who can, it seems, tell exactly how many times someone has clicked on one of their ads.

We are back to the Asimov equation. Billions are being made out of the internet by the corporations that run it and collect the advertising revenues. Why are the content providers uniquely unremunerated?

The Author's Licensing Society in Britain has collected £156m in a low-technology way for library lending of books and photocopying of pages. So how much of a leap is it for the big internet providers to pay a tiny fraction of a cent every time someone clicks onto a copyrighted page?

Of course, mere drudges and hacks do not have the lobbying muscle to get through, but surely all these newspapers and magazines collectively can do what the mega-music industry has done? They do not have to sue teenagers. Sue the providers, or get legislation comparable to the British library lending fees. Who knows, it could be the salvation of the publishing industry so that it becomes more solid financially and journalistically as it moves inexorably from paper to silicon?

Save journalism. Pay journalists!

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