The Free Press is Dead–Temporarily

By Nate Thayer

March 19, 2014

Don’t believe anything you read in the media anymore.

I don’t

And spare me the “Mainstream Media” hyperbole. It doesn’t exist. The truth is that the so-called mainstream media, or the tattered shreds of its remaining vestiges, are considerably more trustworthy than the anarchy of online sleuths who never enter through the sausage making process that spits out good reporting after being vetted by internal quality control standards of the larger news organizations.

Anybody who thinks the earth is flat or uses Twitter as a bully platform has nearly equal weight in disseminating news.

There is nothing like being part of the community of professional creative artists–writers, journalists, photographers, cameramen, musicians, and the many others.

But the last few years have been more than a bit challenging to those who produce that content, as the extraordinarily positive digital age of borderless information has forced a sea change in how  meaningful media content is made financially viable to create and produce and distribute.

It used to be that people like me were issued modest paychecks and, through the business side of our corporate media outfits, the issue of maximizing profit for the financial backers of a free press was addressed entirely separately.

There are no bad guys here nor any use for finger pointing. It is not just useless but counterproductive to resist. It isn’t anybody’s fault.

The simple truth is, in this wonderful new era of “free” information in cyberspace,  no one has yet figured out an effective, viable business model that compensates creative artists to make a living doing what they do. They will. It is the normal cadence of human progress and innovation and advancing technology.

It is that we are smack dab in the middle of a fundamental shift in the  superstructure of the free global marketplace.

Theoretically, revenue to deliver quality news to readers or viewers use to be created by advertising and sales with the promise that those who funded the production of that news would have the attention of a promised demographic of certain readers and viewers.

The dirty little secret is, the new reality is that reliable news isn’t delivered to readers–rather consumers are delivered to advertisers.

Whether the vehicle to do so involves delivering reliable reporting in exchange has become not just secondary—but mute.

Whether the process of delivering consumers to advertisers is in exchange for reliable reporting or for faux news is a peripheral concern.

While maintaining the fiction that readers are receiving accurate news that has gone through an internal process of quality control, the truth is there is very little effective quality control anymore.

Let’s be honest here.

No government can be involved in controlling or financing a free press for obvious reasons. They are, by very definition, an interested party.

So that means private, for-profit businesses must own the means of production to deliver a free press to free people.

But here is the rub: Any businessman worth their salt doesn’t care whether they are sustaining a free press by selling top quality news or whether they are selling dog food. If they can make more profit selling dog food, they will. And they should.

But the truth is, I find the most profitable dog food brands today are more nutritious for my pal, my dog Lamont, than the ingredients of the brain food I consume which is marketed as accurate and reliable news.

More and more readers no longer even identify what they read with their perception of the media outlet which their news is produced, but rather with their perception of the professionalism and worthiness of the reporter whose byline appears on that story.

This new, although most probably temporary, reality has forced journalists like myself to engage in self-marketing–a process of which I both loathe and have very little talent–in order to produce  minimal funding to continue to make a living doing what we do best.

Hence the fundraising campaign to produce my book Sympathy for the Devil and continue my work as an investigative reporter.

I have no institutional support. There is no paycheck. All costs must be underwritten by me. To sustain this, I must appeal directly to those who find my type of reporting worthy enough to pay for in exchange for reading it.

Producing quality news costs money. In order to make quality news reporting available for “free” on the internet, someone must monetize the demand for that news to underwrite the production of it.

We are in a transition that has particularly hit hard those who produce quality news for free people.

Someone will figure out how to make money doing so because reliable news that serves the common interest is not only vital, it has a market.

People both want and need it.

Now, we are still under a mass delusion that we are getting it. Once that myth is firmly exposed and rooted, the demand will become palpable.

Until quite recently, there was always an iron curtain between the advertising and business and corporate side and that of the newsroom. I, frankly, didn’t care what they did over there as long as they kept their paws out of my stories and provided the resources for me to report and research and produce top quality journalism and topped it off with a chunk of change on top for me to pay my bills and live without reasonable want

Here is the current reality: Newsrooms have been eviscerated or collapsed.

Budgets have been slashed to the bone.

Budgets for my kind of specialty reporting do not exist.

Foreign news coverage has been devastated.

The expensive and time consuming genre of investigative journalism is, for all intents and purposes, currently history.

The editors and other professionals who carefully staffed the internal quality control mechanisms which ensured what one read over breakfast was worthy of trust, are long gone.

There was a reason why when one read the Washington Post  or the London Times, one assumed a standard of believability that was different than when one read, say, the Sun or the National Enquirer.

Now there is, in fact, very little difference. The truth is that those who control the levers of power in the media are interested in how many page hits they get and how quickly.

If the quality of the content of what we read is as important to us as being able to simply read content, then we all must participate in the economics of how to make that happen.

Soon, in the very near future, someone is going to figure out how to make a profit and sustain a vigorous free press worthy of free people. It is not going to be me. But a few people are going to become gazillionaires–and rightfully so.

In the meantime, I hope I don’t get evicted or starve to death.

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