Maybe Philip K. Dick knew something we didn’t about newsgathering

I’m not hearing “solution!” to the problem of newspapers and content and getting paid. Paywalls? Actually, they do work – at least for the FT and the Wall Street Journal. (A bit.) Advertising? Ummm..

Some of the Philip K. Dick short stories I’ve read have robot journalists – people come out of their work and are interviewed by machines. It never occurred to me to question why there were still people working in laboratories, yet newsgathering could be done by robots.

But the way we’re going, he’s going to be close enough. We come again to the long-lived micropayments issue. Writing in Time on micropayments (and note, in passing, the SEO-unfriendly URL there) under the title of “How to Save Your Newspaper” (with more of those wacky Random Capitalisations), we have Walter Isaacson:

Another group that benefits from free journalism is Internet service providers. They get to charge customers $20 to $30 a month for access to the Web’s trove of free content and services. As a result, it is not in their interest to facilitate easy ways for media creators to charge for their content. Thus we have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.

There’s also, for entertainment, the way that links are almost randomly stuck attached to the ends of paragraphs (one mentions iTunes; the end of the paragraph offers a link to “See Apple’s 10 best business moves”. Uh?).

He’s got a good point about ringtones vs content. That’s partly the question of utility – a ringtone you can use again and again, whereas do you have many newspaper articles that you return to again and again?

Balance against that a splendid rant by David Simon, co-author of The Wire, a former crime reporter on the Baltimore Sun, who got outraged enough (actually, he’s fairly easily outraged on certain topics, it seems) to start moonlighting as a reporter again. In Baltimore. About crime. And venting (his word) at the editor of the Baltimore Sun to get its interest up again.

He writes about it in the Washington Post:

Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit — these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information. And in a city where officials routinely plead with citizens to trust the police, where witnesses have for years been vulnerable to retaliatory violence, we now have a once-proud department’s officers hiding behind anonymity that is not only arguably illegal under existing public information laws, but hypocritical as well.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn’t anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

I didn’t trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that’s the point. In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it.

And a third piece to throw into the mix: the Vagueware blog suggests that giving away online ads (do people do that?) was the core mistake. Could be.

Throw those together. Micropayments don’t work. Bloggers aren’t covering the beat. Newspapers aren’t able to afford to cover the beat any more. And advertising staff aren’t getting the revenues from ads.

All together, it’s a mess. Maybe we do need to start creating a robot that can stick its hand up and say “Sir Fred, do you intend to pay back the money?” Obviously, you’ll build a microphone right into the hand. Save some money right there. Get to it, guys.


  1. Charles, yes, people really do give away ads.

    They do so in order to get the sale on the print ad – “pay this big pile of cash for the print ad, and we’ll give you a few thousand page impressions for free” – and because the ad teams generally have not been able to see the “point” to the online stuff, a much cheaper market as it is.

    Part of the problem I guess is that they don’t actually want online news to work: things would be so much easier in many newsrooms, particularly regional US newsrooms, if they could just push back time 15 years. Except they can’t.

    And the horrid reality of that for those working on those papers is it might be time for them to shut up shop and employees either adapt to new models or find new work. People are afraid of that, as I’m sure medieval monks were when Guttenberg came out of his workshop muttering “you won’t believe what I’ve just made in there….”

    P.S. – thanks for the link.

  2. In the PK Dick sphere I thought you were going to go into separate realities, which seemed to be a common thread in several of his novels.

    I find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between objective reporting of fact and opinion masquerading as fact (perhaps it has always been so). At least with “professional” journalists we have an expectation of integrity and clear distinction between reportage and comment, if the old model is replaced by community volunteered news gathering then we are facing a forest of superficiality

  3. Hi, I don’t know what the truth of ISPs and the ease of taking micropayments is, but I like Philip K Dick. But, If I were to want to subscribe to a news service that ran all the little bits of news by me that I could then do something with like find an interesting one to write about, to which service paid or unpaid, would you recommend I subscribe?

  4. The thing is, some fecker would work out how to hack the robojournalist – and do it for free as open source…