Confessions of a Cyberscab

Originally posted at on March 25, 2009.

The invitation to join SFGate’s new corps of bloggers called City Brights offers the opportunity to reach a substantial audience, a prospect no journalist or professional writer turns down easily. But it carries troubling implications.

The Gate, the online arm of the San Francisco Chronicle, compensates its bloggers in the currency of the web, hits and links, instead of dollars and cents, which is how writers used to be compensated for similar commentaries on the Chronicle’s OpEd page. “Hits and links” is another way of saying “for free,” and blogging for free for a news business that has just announced plans to lay off or buy out scores of paid staff journalists feels uncomfortably like scabbing.

What the Gate is offering its bloggers is the norm in the online world, but the timing of its offer is fraught with irony. The Chronicle is in deep trouble, groaning under accumulated losses caused, in part, by

Blogging for free for a news business that has just announced plans to lay off or buy out scores of paid staff journalists feels uncomfortably like scabbing.

competition from online sites, including its own.

The Gate will increasingly serve as the Chronicle’s face to the world, and if the paper folds, as currently appears possible, the web site may well be its only outlet. My blogging colleagues’ distinguished credentials notwithstanding, the Gate will likely substitute some of the amateurs’ free musings for the more informed, better researched news and analysis published in the newspaper. One-shot flashes of emotion and insight can never adequately replace the professional journalist’s persistent but less glamorous news coverage, day in and day out.

“Information wants to be free” is the Net’s rallying cry, but the traditional content providers and their families expect real remuneration for their labors. As for the readers … well, you get what you pay for.

Therein lies the tragedy of American journalism today. It’s a tragedy both for journalists, who were able to earn a living by holding a mirror up to their world, and for the nation that relied on those newspapers, however misguided at times, to help establish our communal agenda and provide much of the data by which we (bloggers and the rest of us) could define our culture and assess the operation of our governments. Even for its critics, in whose ranks I often found myself, the Chronicle has been the closest institution we have to an area-wide forum. It was a place where — in potential, if not always in execution — this gloriously diverse and inventive area could show it has more in common than a shared spot on the map.

The Chronicle served as an uncompensated wholesaler. Other local news media — including those on the web — based much of their local news coverage on what they read in the Chronicle. In the media food chain nationally, commentary, which makes up an ever larger share of our online diet, feeds on news stories usually developed by print journalists. As those print publications cut back and, increasingly, go out of business, the bloggers will be feeding on an ever more impoverished diet.

The Chronicle, like most other newspapers, has handled poorly the transition from print-only to a more varied information environment. Overwhelmed by an epochal information revolution — and often burdened by the debts of acquisitive media conglomerates — newspapers seem intent on acting out to the final curtain an outmoded economic model.

I share the sadness of those who mourn the layoff-by-layoff decline and potential demise of the Chronicle, more for what the newspaper sometimes has been and what it could have become than for what it seems fated to be with a fraction of its news staff.

Without the Chronicle, and barring the emergence of an independent, local white knight or a new killer app for

In the end what emerges from an excessive reliance on amateurs is still amateurish.

news, the people who live here will have to subsist increasingly on McNews — perhaps served up by short-order cooks at a franchised fast-food outlet like Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group. The MediaNews chain has already gobbled up most of the local suburban newspapers and seems intent on realizing “economies of scale” by pruning staff and publishing the same generic, centrally edited news stories in all its local papers. MediaNews appears to be the ultimate beneficiary of a monopoly exemption favored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The disappearance of the dominant metro paper is likely to atomize the local population further into islands of special interest, probably in the form of competing and little-trafficked web sites, each with its own formula, bias, subject areas and constituency.

Those of us who have felt that too few local voices — of all races, interests and income levels — were reflected in the Chronicle must now face the prospect that without the paper we will have convenient, common access to still fewer voices. Although those voices will find expression somewhere on the web or in print, we will lose the forum where they could most constructively meet.

The cult of the amateur blogger is satisfying to the amateur — and in many ways informative for the reader. Amateurs serve as a crucial check on the corps of officially sanctioned “authorities,” and many have undeniably useful expertise. I celebrate the two-way pipeline that the Net facilitates. But few bloggers have the resources to research stories in far-flung areas or to dig deeply into affairs of state and local governance. In the end what emerges from an excessive reliance on amateurs is still amateurish.

I start my SFGate blogging with the hope that more of us will realize that we have a stake in the Chronicle’s survival and the retention of as many as possible of its skilled professionals. And I hope that both the newspaper and its web site come to realize that they stand a better chance of thriving by engaging openly with the community in devising strategies to preserve what used to call itself “The Voice of the West.”

Ultimately, the solution to newspapers’ woes, both locally and nationally, lies in finding new ways of merging print and web, new ways of becoming relevant and essential to their communities and new ways of “monetizing” news and informed analysis, not in “demonetizing” those who provide it.

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