Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Smell the Irony, Redux

Without these, what will we use to line our birdcages?!?
I don't like to let an opportunity go missed. I received a comment for my last post, (Smell the Irony) that was delicious. However, apparently the commenter thought better of it, because when I went to approve it, I found that it had apparently been deleted. Since it *was* deleted, I'll withhold the name of the commenter, but the comment itself was too pithy not to respond. Yes, I realize that, since it was withdrawn by the commenter, even he must have found something wrong with it, which makes it a bit of a straw man; but honestly I don't care.  As straw men go, this one is a living, breathing example of what someone in the journalism business thinks. I'm not going to reproduce it in its entirety (it was longer than my original piece; hence this is also), but you'll get the gist well enough from context.

The commenter (to whom I will hereafter refer with the Slashdot convention of "Anonymous Coward", or "A.C.") lead with, "Maybe you should learn a bit more about the journalism business before you slam them for wanting to make a living doing the job. " And took me to task from there. A.C. works in a support role in the field of Journalism.


Full disclosure on my part for your benefit, A.C. ... I did learn a bit more about the Journalism business before I opined. I was raised in a newspaper household from the time I was 6 years old until I was 21. My stepfather was the foreman of the engraving department at The State/Columbia Record newspapers. We spent every summer vacation at editorial cartoonist Jak Smyrl's beach house at Holden Beach. It was my dream to become a reporter, and I worked hard for it. I was editor-in-chief of my high school paper, steeped myself in All Things Journalism, and became a Journalism major in college.

I decided to switch careers once I discovered that I was in a distinct minority when it comes to valuing facts over spin in news reporting. One day I had a professor ask us why we wanted to become reporters. In a classroom of about 30 people I was the only one who didn't want to shape opinion and change the world. My 'naive' goal was to report the facts so people could make informed decisions for themselves. Of course, this wasn't the only factor in my decision, but this one poll pretty well perfectly summarized the problem for me. We had gone from Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite to newspeak, and only a few years shy of the actual year 1984. I left that very classroom that very day, walked about two blocks to a military recruiter's office, and joined the United States Air Force so I could continue to eat while I reassessed my priorities. The one thing I knew was that I didn't want to work with those asses for the rest of my life.

On the op/ed page, opinions quite rightly rule; but you will rarely, if ever, find neutral reporting in a US newspaper. When you do learn about the journalism business, you can't help but know that the facts presented (or withheld), the tone of the reporting, the lede, the headline... everything is colored by the editorial position that the paper would like to take, and that color is increasingly yellow. It's not terribly noticeable if your opinion and the paper's happen to align. But if you are truly of independent thought, then it is glaringly obvious.

It is true that newspapers are under stress. They are under stress because many of them don't understand the new economic ecology. There was a day when almost the entirety of the news was controlled by the local paper and three broadcast networks. Those decision-makers in the industry who operated in a climate with severely limited competition (and thus continue to overestimate their own importance in a new climate where competition is fierce) are exactly those to whom I refer when I say "dinosaurs of the Press".

Mo' Freedom, Mo' Choice

You speak derisively of people who expect music and movies to be free; but this derision is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of their expectation. Specifically, it's not just the misunderstanding of freedom vs. price: it's a misunderstanding of the way that the economy has always worked.

For instance, music sales have always been driven by people who have heard songs "for free". To pretend it is otherwise is pure historical revisionism. Even prior to "free" radio play, songs were played "for free" by Tin Pan Alley piano players to entice people to buy the sheet music. Now, new channels now exist for monetization. Just because you prefer one over another doesn't mean I have to prefer the same one. The market will determine the winner, and if you bet wrong, then it's not my job to mourn your passing.

Within those new channels, people are more than willing to pay artists, even as they are less than willing to support the system that continues to exploit them. For instance, I pay in advance for indie movies (like this one!) on Kickstarter because I don't expect them for free. Likewise, I preferentially purchase music from indie artists whose work I discovered through free distribution. I've funded more than a few first albums on Kickstarter as well. Furthermore, I provide payments through Patreon to artists directly in order to encourage them to produce more.

So don't bitch about the economic climate. That's what dinosaurs do when they don't want to adapt.


Speaking of that climate, actual newspaper sales are going down. Ad revenue is going down. Duh. Advertisers are still paying for eyeballs, and their customers aren't reading print anymore. This was obvious and foreseeable twenty years ago. And it's true that website traffic is not anywhere near what the original newsprint revenue was, just as it's true that production costs for a website are a mere fraction of the production costs of an ink-and-paper issue. Revenue is not profit, and focus on revenue detracts from an informed discussion of the actual viability of news sources.

Business as usual (to those who weren't asleep)

You berate others for scraping and stealing stories without revenue for the generators, ignoring the fact that the same has always been true of print publications. When someone breaks a story, everyone else will inevitably report on it. You complain as if this is something new rather than the way it has always been, even though you damned well know that to be the case. The only difference here is in the scope of it. Scraping and stealing in toto is certainly actionable plagiarism; however, as you very well know, exceptions have always existed under Title 17 for editorial comment, education, and parody... Fair Use. And attribution isn't plagiarism. When a competitor reports on a story and credits The Times for the information, then it not only increases the reputation of The Times, but readers will want a copy of the first-hand report. There are financial benefits to attribution. Perhaps you don't believe that, or think they're over-rated. Fine. If you want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, then paywall your sites and get them off of the bloody Internet and off of the search engines.

Tell us whether your revenue goes up... or tanks. It doesn't matter which. The point here is you get to make your choices about your business strategy. If you don't like the way the Internet works, don't stand there and bitch about it. Do it another way.

Journalism is most certainly about “prestige and royalties for re-prints and moneymoneymoney.” Yet you say it's not, immediately after having raked others over the coals that very thing. Prestige is what preferentially drives people to your "trusted" publication rather than others and keeps your circulation high. Re-print rights are exactly what's discussed when you're complaining about "scraping and stealing". Profitability keeps you in business. And you have the chutzpah to claim that *I* don't know what I'm talking about. Pot, meet kettle.

Yes, it takes time and effort and cost to put together a story. It's up to you to monetize it, in a way that works in the economy in which you find yourselves. No one is here to change the economy on your behalf simply because you find it to be inconvenient or difficult. And nobody is here to legislate the inclusion of a buggy whip with each motorcar, just because you happen to make the whips.

And none of the economic factors have anything whatsoever to do with the central fact of my commentary. We are still talking about government-held information that has no business being withheld from the public. Our elected officials are not your errand boys and bouncers, keeping the public away from information while providing it to you alone. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law in 1966. Nineteen hundred and sixty-bloody-six. There was no Internet. It was expensive and time-consuming to copy massive amounts of information, so it was reasonable to require a fee and to limit the dissemination to those who asked for it. But 1966 is half a century gone, and you are basing your complaints on a model of investigation and economics that's just as obsolete.

Talk to the hand. I have no sympathy for you.

Frankly, it takes astonishing hubris to imply that the public needs your "rational and reasonable narrative". The first implication is that it is "rational and reasonable", which is debatable. The second implication is that it wouldn't be there without you. The FOIA wasn't put there for you, it was put there for the public. You just happen to be included in that group, and you happen to have benefited for a time from archaic technological limitations. But the FOIA is bigger than you, and facts alone inform the public just fine.

You ask who will make those requests if it isn't for you. Who do you think? Watchdog groups, individual citizens, attorneys for class-action litigation, independent journalists and news organizations that have actually figured out the economy... the list is pretty much endless. Just because you haven't figure it out doesn't mean everybody else is clueless. Ideally at some point we will no longer need the requests at all because the information will be directly searchable, but I am quite serious when I say that incremental improvement is still improvement, and I'll take it.


Finally, you ask whether I give my time and expertise away. Yes, I do, often.

I've not only done it with the little bit of music I create, providing it not only via the web, but also for the occasional community play; I've done it with a number of open source projects that anybody anywhere could duplicate without a contract to guarantee my payment for time and effort.

Here's how it works: I create what I want. It not only acts as something of a portfolio; but also provides me with tailored software that would otherwise be expensive, or often simply wouldn't exist at all. Thus, the effort is of value to me personally even if no one else pays me a dime. I do it when I feel like it, and I provide it for free, because I see no reason not to. Just because I can horde my skills doesn't mean I have to. But it is my work, so I leverage existing copyright law to license my work under Creative Commons so that you can't come along and sequester what I have freely chosen to share them with others.

Now, even though I don't generally advertise it any more, occasionally other people have stumbled upon and used some of my software and asked me if it can be modified for some feature of their choosing. I tell them it certainly can... they have the source code. But I'm nobody's slave. I do what I want for free, but I'll happily do what they want for a fee. And although they could make the change themselves, they have freely chosen to pay for my time and expertise to make the changes for them[1].

It's not just me. Thousands of developers do this, on GitHub, on SourceForge, on OpenNTF and other sites. You're in a tech supporting role, Anonymous. Surely you know that people actually get paid for this stuff. But like the news, the real currency that drives the monetization of skills is reputation.

It's hilarious to me that you would attempt to use my everyday reality as an illustration of your problem, suggesting that if only I understood it, I'd have a better idea of what you're going through.

Smell the fucking irony. 

Image via Flicker by Jon S.  Creative Commons, bay-bee!

[1] But here's what I don't do... I don't put thoughts in other people's heads and then pretend as though I have the right or might to claim exclusive ownership of the thoughts now housed in their brains. What you think of as "intellectual property" is the artificial privilege of limited-time monopoly granted to you by the People through the agency of the State in order to encourage productivity. That is the complete and total extent of its resemblance to "property". Read the Constitution. The delusional mindset that insists on the "right" of "intellectual property" is distilled idiocy. You own your thoughts; but you don't own mine. So if you want exclusive "ownership" of an idea, then the very best way secure it is to keep your mouth shut. Seriously. Otherwise you can expect no more "ownership" than the strict letter of the law allows.

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