Charles Murray recently complained that the New York Times paid him only $75 for an op-ed piece. For most people, writing opinion pieces for the NYT is something that is its own reward. Even among people that that are good writers and knowledgeable in their field. The Southern Tech University’s student paper, the Daily Packer, paid me between $6-8 per opinion column. With a distribution of over 10k, being published and recognized across campus was really its own reward.

Others have pointed that out, but what is less discussed is the distinction between writing opinion pieces and writing other things. A case study are two attempts at content-monetizing. One by the Wall Street Journal and one by the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal kept its opinion section free as OpinionJournal.com while the Times put all of its opinioneers behind the paywall of Times Select. The former’s succeeded while the latter’s failed. It seems to me that the reason for this is pretty obvious. One was putting behind a paywall what people don’t want to do for free while the other was putting behind a paywall what people were paying webhosts for the privilege of doing.

I was never once tempted to sign up for Times Select, but I have been meaning to sign up for Wall Street Journal’s online offering for years. If I read the first paragraph of an opinion piece and then find out that the rest is behind a paywall, I kind of shrug “Oh, well, I am sure someone else will be offering as good an opinion for free.” Meanwhile, I have been frustrated time and time again by WSJ articles that I could only read the first couple paragraphs of.

Actual reporting is hard work. Or maybe just unpleasant work for anybody but a certain kind of person. You have to make sure to get the facts right. You have to go talk to people. You have to talk to people on both sides of whatever you’re talking about or at least seek multiple voices. You’re supposed to tell people things that they don’t already know. Opinioneering is less of a challenge. Though you need an arsenal of facts to make your case, it’s mostly about the arrangement of facts to serve particular ends. But even when it’s not easier, it’s often going to be more rewarding. Everybody wants their opinion heard from the nerd behind the keyboard to the drunk guy at the bar. Everybody wants to tell everybody else the what’s what.

What the Wall Street Journal has been banking on, though, is that their news articles offer something that a lot of people won’t do for free. A lot of people have been talking about the future death of newspapers and they’re rather passive about it because of “new media” and all that. The problem with all of this is that a lot of these “new media” outfits are relying on free or underpaid writers often picking at the lowest fruit. Doing the fun stuff. Maybe it is the case that there are enough people chomping at the bit to do actual journalism that something won’t be lost. I’m skeptical, though. I think we run the risk of losing the people doing the grunt work. Providing the basis for people to do the opinioneering on.

I think about this with a lot of artistic endeavors. I’m never all that worried about their being no more painters. Painting requires talent, skill, and practice, but it’s mostly a solo venture. Someone will always want to do it. I feel similarly about novels and music, though less strongly because there is gruntwork there in the form of editing or sound editing. But even then, there will be product. So while we might get poorer-sounding recording and novels with past-perfect tense errors, we will at least get something. Compare this with journalism where the “something” we may be left with is simply someone spouting off the latest thing they heard on Hannity or Olbermann or the short, glitzy “news items” on television news.


Category: Newsroom

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4 Responses to Opinions Are Like…

  1. web says:

    You have to make sure to get the facts right. You have to go talk to people. You have to talk to people on both sides of whatever you’re talking about or at least seek multiple voices. You’re supposed to tell people things that they don’t already know.

    You are being far, far too kind to modern so-called “journalists”, Will.

  2. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    The Times still does good journalism, IMO, but it suffers from a dreadfully antiquated business model as well as some credibility scandals in its recent past. The Journal seems to be better adapting to the current business climate, although its manner of moving forward is also imperfect.

    The real issue is not how to keep print editions as profitable as they once were, but rather how to make electronic news outlets more profitable in the future. Roughly half a paper’s revenue comes in from print ads and the other half from classified ads. The prince of a print ads is commanded by the number of papers in circulation, not by the number of eyeballs that hit the website. Craigslist has driven a stake through the heart of classified ad sales everywhere. So the way newspapers keep enough money moving through them to support real journalism is to pump up the profit on electronic access to their product. The Atlantic did a good piece last month on how Google is trying to make that happen by increasing the value of online advertising, but I think that the Journal‘s pay-per-view model will also wind up being part of the picture at the end of the day.

    As for Murray, he can stick his contempt for his $75 check where the sun don’t shine. I’d be willing to write an op-ed for the Gray Lady, the Journal, the Post, or any other paper with a sufficiently wide readership for free, including an assignment of my intellectual property rights in the work. So would 99.99% of any writers, professional or amateur, working today.

  3. trumwill says:

    The Times still does good journalism, IMO,

    Oh, agreed. Their op-ed page is not particularly interesting, though I would say the same of the WSJ (the Washington Post is a little better). But the Times, the Post, and the Journal are easily the three premier reporting papers in the country. Nothing makes me appreciate them more than looking at the local Colosse Herald during this trip.

    I wish Google (and, gasp, Apple) luck in helping newspapers figure out a way to be profitable as electronic news outlets, but I’m not all that optimistic.

  4. stone says:

    Yes, unlike painting, it is difficult or impossible to do journalism as a hobby because it involves other people’s cooperation. You can’t just call someone up and ask them a bunch of critical questions for the hell of it. You need some authority and purpose behind you. And, you need accountability, which is a lot to demand from hobbyists.

    Even before the big newspaper crash, I always thought people expected a hell of a lot from reporters given the conditions they work under and what they’re paid. One of my favorite sayings used to be “Everything but the entire universe is out of context.”

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