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The Great Type Hope

February 26, 2010

Even though I’ve knocked the industrial news media’s commercial viability in the past, there is no doubt in my mind that journalism is still a valuable, valuable commodity that people will be willing to pay for in one way or another.  The fact of the matter is that writing, though infinitely shareable, is enjoyable enough that consumer surplus exists; at least in theory, that surplus can be extracted to support the costs in some way.  Luckily, those costs are around rock-bottom right now.

For example, this fantastic piece of investigatory journalism is quite typical of the blogosphere: one journalist examined the publicly released pictures of Sarah Palin and her baby Trig, and found some serious discrepancies, suggesting that Palin has been using a “prop” baby on the campaign trail.  You don’t need a news bureau in every capital in the world to produce that kind of journalism, just the savvy to see the story and the time and energy to put it together.

Journalism is particularly cheap (in a good way) when it comes in the form of a rant because the source material is already disseminated and pushed out to the world; the costs of collecting that information is pretty low and the literary talents of the author can shine through.  For example Matt Taibbi’s excellent and often hilarious critique of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded:

Just when you begin to lose faith in America’s ability to fall for absolutely anything—just when you begin to think we Americans as a race might finally outgrow the lovable credulousness that leads us to fork over our credit card numbers to every half-baked TV pitchman hawking a magic dick-enlarging pill, or a way to make millions on the Internet while sitting at home and pounding doughnuts— along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 114,000 11,400 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Not all rants are necessarily negative.  This ode to the cocktail by Robert Messenger struck a particular chord with me:

There’s no better case in point of the new bar professionalism than D.C.’s Derek Brown–the man who first pushed Eric Seed to seek out the Dolin vermouths. He grew fascinated by the drinks trade early and worked as the sommelier in some of D.C.’s best restaurants. Yet his heart remained more behind the bar than in the -cellar. The beautiful revival speakeasy The Gibson is now his stage, and its owners have faith their investment will pay off–they spent about $200,000 renovating a ground-floor space into a dark, wood-paneled dream. There are only 48 seats and, if one isn’t open, you won’t be welcome to loiter until one is. The new cocktail lounges are all about preserving a comfortable atmosphere for drinks and conversation. (Milk & Honey in New York, one of the best spots in America for the classic cocktail drinker, has a famous set of rules, including the wonderful instruction to its female patrons, “If a man you don’t know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him.” My favorite: “Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home.”)

Looking at this list of “Best of Journalism (2009),” it’s clear that there is still an ample (if not growing) amount of quality journalism being produced constantly; now, more than ever, we are flooded with excellent writing and opinion.  Facts, however, are becoming a more precious commodity.  Storytelling, odes, rants: all of these are easy because the journalist can readily become engrossed in the source material.  It is a much more difficult task to embed oneself in a situation where someone is resistant or hostile to acknowledging a set of facts that person or entity controls.  Of course, those are the situations one would think are the most crucial areas for journalism with no slant or bias, and the most resources at the journalist’s disposal to uncover the actual truth.  These fact journalists need cost structures up front, institutions behind them, and some insulation to typical worldly pressures throughout if the rest of the world is to benefit from the truth.  The situation is a pure example of concentrated costs and widely dispersed benefits, to the point where some of the recipients of the benefits prefer rational ignorance instead of coughing up their pro rata share of a few pennies.

Maybe we need a fact tax?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. archilochusColubris permalink
    February 26, 2010 2:17 pm

    You kid with the fact tax, but this is very indicative of your reoccurring issue here — our economy’s struggle to deal with the structural change of the information age whilst half of the populace does not believe in public goods.

    But don’t get me started. Novels to write before we sleep. Which, incidentally, you read the supposedly-related Player Piano? I haven’t yet, but i’ve heard Vonnegut runs with some of the paranoias i share regarding how society will adapt to related forces. Want to get my hands on that.

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