“I’m registering with the Communist party, actually,” said my Hebrew school classmate when I asked him who he was planning on voting for in the 2008 election. Trying to avoid a political debate, I simply said “Good luck with that” all the while thinking that I would love to see the day that this wealthy, private-school educated Jewish boy from the suburbs who constantly brags about his exotic vacations would give it all up for the sake of his “comrades.” Even though all I said was good luck, I really wanted to say “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
Today, two years after that conversation, I am beginning to see my classmate’s point when I ponder the fate of the American journalism industry. Two weeks ago, Hannah Guy and I worked hard (as we do every week) to edit, lay out and publish the Commentary section. Once we completed the section and went home, we received an e-mail from the senior editors explaining that one page of our commentary section, containing the hard work of three student writers, would be cut to make room for a full-page advertisement. I was upset, not only selfishly for the work Hannah and I had put in to the section, but also for the writers who would have to wait until the next issue for us to try to squeeze their work in. However, I am not angry at the senior editors, they simply had to fill a contractual obligation. Instead I am angry at the capitalist system that subscribes a value to the hard work of journalists based on the advertisements that writing can attract from unrelated businesses. I couldn’t help but think to the words I had been reading all week in Marx’s Communist Manifesto in my Challenge of Modernity class: the only freedoms we have are to buy and sell. Today it seems that even our free press still must be restricted by businesses and their advertisements.
With the advent of blogs, Twitter and texting, it is easy to hear the news for free. Some commentators even call this type of news better than traditional print journalism. It takes us back to a time when everybody had a voice as deliverers and commentators on the news. After all, why should I pay for a subscription to the New York Times when I can just read someone’s Facebook status proclaiming, “OMG health care debaters need to chill out?”
As capitalism would fondly remind us, a rational person would obviously choose the less expensive version of the same product over the expensive one.
As my less tactful self would say, “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” When it comes to most industries in this country, I firmly believe in capitalism, but I believe the journalism industry is an important exception. This free news delivered by a BBM and not a paperboy may seem more democratic but it is actually destroying journalism. Through these free sources of news, we can find blogs telling us how President Obama is setting up death panels, twitters about how the CIA planned 9/11 and message boards spewing racism and hate. Say what you want about the liberal leanings of The New York Times or the conservative biases of The Wall Street Journal, but print journalism never fails to deliver pieces that are well-written, analytical, investigative and most importantly accurate. And when these print sources occasionally slip up, they are accountable for it, unlike your Facebook friend who posted that Jeff Goldblum fell off a cliff.
However, even these print sources are available to us for free on their websites, so why should we pay to subscribe? As we loyally follow this capitalist logic, newspapers must make up for this lost revenue through a dependence on advertisers. The Washington Post already has looked into allowing business to publish advertisements in editorial form on the Op-Ed page. The New York Times Magazine is getting as skinny as the models featured in the Fashion Issue.
Yet, capitalism provides us with no solution, except to let print journalism die out. However, the absence of a reliable and truly independent journalism industry is the absence of the civil society that makes this country the greatest country in the world. Cheap news is not like a cheap lamp from Wal-Mart, it has profoundly dangerous effects on our society, as seen in the recent health care debate.
The only solution is a Marxist one: journalism needs to be given an artificial price based on the collective importance of journalism to society as a whole and not how much ad revenue it can take in.
As consumers, we need to make an irrational choice and buy the more expensive product for the good of our society, even if it may not make sense individually. When it comes saving journalism, we must follow Karl Marx’s advice and unite.
Contact Katie David at [email protected]