Online journalism consumers are "looters"

Noted crankypants Bob Garfield, co-host of On The Media, likens current consumers of (mostly free, readily-shared) online news to "looters" who "enjoy an improved standard of living."

Writing in a Guardian op-ed section ironically titled "Comment is Free," Garfield says that standard of living "only stays improved until the store is emptied out."

Those consumers cheerfully using the web to sample content from all over the world via news websites, blogs and aggregators are essentially picking the inventory clean. Oh, and when they get the stuff home, the goods aren't what they used to be. And some of the stuff has a sour smell to it.

tl;dr anyone who cares about journalism should "pray for paywalls and other subscription models to take hold." Go read the rest. Apparently it's not an April Fool's joke, but a sincere rant.

* You just got excerpted and aggregated, bro.


  1. If his website is anything to go by; I, for one, would encourage him to go Galt as soon as possible. Just tell him that it will show those looters a thing or two…

  2. The news industry’s approach to monetizing is antiquated. And very rarely do they think consumer first – it’s always analytics first these days.

    Far from why I decided to join the field, but alas, I need a job.

    1. Well, yes. But the problems the news industry is facing is that the internet is going to make them poor. News desks with reporters and international travel and investigative reporting and all that jazz? Without expensive advertising (which newspapers and television has the web does not!) they absolutely cannot support themselves as they are.

      A lot of newspeople rightly the rising tide of the web as an emptying out. It hollows out their organizations little by little and then entirely, and what survives, if it survives at all, is going to be very barely recognizable. The brands may stay around but be a completely different thing.

      So you have a lot of newspeople feeling like they’re standing on the edge of a great unknown ocean; some are turning and trying to fight the tide (and losing), and others are fumbling around for a business model, and others are just gradually folding.

      I just wonder what we’re going to do when the aggregators (who are making a comparative pittance by basically skimming the news) win and real news organizations are shells of themselves.

      Hopefully we can crowdsource the news then, because there aren’t going to be a lot of people left doing it for us.

      1.  You mean newspapers were doing wonderful with no hollowing out before that nasty Internet came along?

        Accounts would seem to differ on that. I’ve seen quite a few journalists talk about the gutting of papers by new owners that had nothing to do with the Internet and started long ago.

        1. No, which is why I didn’t say that.

          I’m not a techno-utopian and I have some friends in the industry, so I get to see the other side of this and I do empathise with them.

      2. I’m with Al Billings, the news industry has been increasingly “gutted” even before the Internet came along. Is it worse now? Yes. But is it the internet’s fault? No, I don’t think so. The internet era just made it more apparent.

        The news industry is very, very resistant to change – like all other large industries. I usually compare the news media to the music and movie industry. They’re fighting against change, instead of seeking alternative monetization methods.

        And the worse thing is they’re constantly squeezing in on their content makers – the reporters, photographers and videographers.

        Print reporters are expected to turn in one video a day, even though it’s not a realistic expectation. They want video production to be increased, quality optional.

        The news industry has become very, very anti-consumer/reader/audience. And that’s just… sad.

        Special presentation methods get shut down because it’s not ad-friendly, but later we get a mass email to some NYT/WP/DP project that’s the same as what we had in mind. “Corporate” forces us to run a video player on our website that’s irrelevant to our local readers – yet lambasts us for not being local-relevant. Losing readers is “fine” since we made it up by racking up the print price by 200%.

        So, on one hand we have faltering quality due to smaller staffing with more work and little-to-no freedom for innovation; and on the other hand we’re building up an anti-reader/consumer/community image. 

        And we’re surprised we’re faltering? 

        1. I don’t disagree with any of what you’re saying, and I don’t think the newspaper industry somehow deserves to stay alive any more than the music industry does, which is why I didn’t make that value judgement in my comment.

          I just want us to look at the situation with eyes open, not through some techno-elite rose-coloured glasses. There’s a very real possibility that the internet is actually making a lot of people a lot poorer, and not just rich people who can afford it.

          1. I apologize if I misunderstood your message, I guess my frustration with the situation got the better of me.

            And I agree, the value of content has dropped or been pretty much negated lately.

            Photographers are expected to shoot for cheap, or free. Reporters with video-editing experience are being offered $15,000-$20,000 a year salary. 

        2. “instead of seeking alternative monetization methods.” Lots of media are looking for monetizing models, problem is they are pretty limited. Be great to hear fresh ideas on this problem.

      3. The problem with crowdsourcing the news is the same that faces Wikipedia: authenticity, accuracy and fact checking are all needed and who is to provide all that free and in timely fashion for the news? Aggregators and those against paywalls seem to ignore that without existing media and paid journos, there will be little for them to aggregate.

  3. The elitist Mr. Garfield appears to think that everything is a commodity. Why, the very words I am typing are depleting the store of words! Making some business model go bankrupt! Orphans will starve, the world will be thrown into chaos and we will all be walking around barefoot in the mud!

    1. My grandfather used to say “don’t read up all the articles before I get to them!” whenever he found me reading one of his newspapers.

  4. Oh look, another oldster is angry because the internet changed an industry in a way not favourable to his stock portfolio! How tragic! Well Mr. Garfield, on this 1st of April I do hereby promise to stop reading free independent internet news sources and go back to paying for corporate propaganda printed on dead trees.

    1.  I think you’ve missed his point.

      Because the internet has destroyed the revenue stream for traditional media outlets, they’ve had to resort to more *ahem* creative profit sources. Like “sponsored” articles and whatnot. Given that large numbers of blogs and other aggregators don’t actually do much original research or journalism, they’re inherently parasitic on traditional media. Worse, they’re a parasite which kills its host (or at least significantly weakens it). Snarky aggregator blogs with attitude and vibrant comment sections are great, but they require content to survive. And they’re not producing their own.

      For example, the Gawker media empire rarely posts original fact-based content. Normally, they take stuff from reddit and the rest of the internet, add some snark, et voila! Page views! Sometimes they write an opinion piece, but honest-to-blawg reporting is rare. The closest Gawker has gotten in recent memory was the Fox-news mole, and that was pathetic. (In fairness, the other bits of Gawker have been better about doing original reporting, Deadspin revealed the Manti Te’o deception, as I recall.)

      For another example, James Fallows of the Atlantic had a post up this morning commenting on the North Korean map which supposedly identified U.S. targets for a missile strike. Building off of a comment from a source, he pointed out that the straight line paths the missiles took was contrary to how the world actually works. He then added some maps and some original commentary. While’s he’s hardly the first person to notice the issue (as I recall it was a minor plot point in an episode of B:TAS back in the day), he actually did the leg work on the post.
      Buzzfeed took his post and his maps, dumbed them down, and reproduced his post with a small “h/t The Atlantic” note. As of right now, the Buzzfeed post has over 40K views. I doubt much of that traffic is going back to the Atlantic because pretty much all of the content in Fallows’ post was reproduced by Hunter Schwartz of Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed’s advertisers must be happy, the Atlantic’s less so. Given that dynamic, is it any wonder that the Atlantic is letting Scientology write sponsored posts for them?

      If organizations like Buzzfeed and Gawker are going to strip readers away from their content providers, thus destroying their content providers’ revenue streams, then what will those websites (and us) do when there are fewer and fewer content providers out there? What will happen when we finally kill the golden goose?

      1. Catching the morning talk shows on TV during breaks at work, I notice that they include YouTube videos which were recently pointed to by reddit, boingboing, etc.  
        Who’s stealing from whom?

  5. I’d disagree, my main problem is when people begin to use software like Ad Blockers depriving the news creators of any compensation at all for their work, hosting, etc.. Those are the looters.

    1.  My main problem with not using ad-blockers is REALLY annoying pop-up/pop-under, generally intrusive, flashy, blinky annoying ads filling my page with stupid animations, hogging memory and processing power using flash to run said stupid animations, and being gaping, ragged-edged security hole type nightmares. Pleasantly-designed, polite, interesting ads I can deal with. The others can fuck right off.

      1. My problem isn’t even all of that so much as the fact that some of them don’t have the resources to load quickly and leave me waiting for the rest of the page to load because they were too cheap to pay for appropriate space.

  6. Xeni,
    I hate to mellow your harsh, but you and many of your readers have entirely misread the column. First of all, it’s not an anti-internet screed. That would be like arguing against the wind, which spreads seeds and powers turbines but also blows down buildings. To observe an effect — which I do for a living — is not to be anti-wind. Anyway, I spend far more time dwelling on the benefits of the new reality than on the dystopian effects. In fact, my new book is practically Pollyana on the subject. 
    The notion that old-line journalism (with its many obvious advantages) is circling the drain is not controversial. What this Guardian  column is about is how publishers, eager to preserve some slice of the good old days, are selling themselves like cheap hookers — which I’m pretty sure is bad news for everybody.
    I’d advise you to re-read.

    1. Anyone who cares deeply about quality, independent journalism should pray for paywalls and other subscription models to take hold.

      Respectfully, there’s a new wind blowing ’round these here parts. It’s a strong wind, knocks down paywalls and whatnot, better be careful. 

    2. Bob, the presence or absence of paywalls has no effect on the quality of the journalism. Indies with cheap digital cameras and laptops can now scoop the old-guard print media journalists… easily. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. Yes, by opening the playing field to everyone with a keyboard there has definitely been a shift in the crap to good ratio but this isn’t as tragic as you think it is. People who care about getting good information are just as discerning as they used to be. The fact that they now have more choices about what they can consume seems like a good thing to me. The more points of view we can consider, the more nuanced our understanding becomes.

      As for falling wages in your industry… it’s capitalism Bob. You’re pining for CD Players when everybody’s already got iPods. It’s the way of the world. Some people will suffer, others will adapt. It’s smarter to take some risks and try to be a part of the change than to resist it, as the entertainment industry has been learning (an expensive lesson!) for the past 15 years. 

      As for publishers behaving like cheap hookers, take heart! The internet abhors a sell-out. They won’t rise to any internet prominence by being inauthentic.

      1. ” They won’t rise to any internet prominence by being inauthentic.”

        That may just be the most naive statement I have ever read in my entire life.

        1. All I’m saying is that the internet makes it easy to discern between crap information and good information if you’ve mind to. The internet doesn’t solve the crap journalism problem but saying it makes it worse is silly.

          1. I don’t think it’s true at all that the Internet makes it easy to tell the difference between crap and good information.

            To the extent that it helps at all, it does so by providing the ability to easily refer to authoritative sources – the very sources that Bob Garfield is (and Boing-Boing is not) sad to see in decline.

          2. The proponents of crank theories and demented bullshit, and their YouTube-commenting hordes would like a word with you…

          3. “Authoritative” is slippery. For instance here’s a list of factual inaccuracies found in the Britannica that have been corrected on Wikipedia. Most people will tell you that the Britannica is a lot more trustworthy than Wikipedia and they’re right to a point… Britannica can’t be vandalized… but it can’t be corrected either. To address your point that the internet makes it no easier to verify facts. I disagree. Verifying print information means travelling around to archives, libraries, town halls. Soon all this information and more will be available without leaving your desk. Doesn’t that seem easier? In any case, I’d argue that “authoritative” information is a myth. There is no certainty in this life. Personally, I see no reason why a website could not have the same reputation for integrity and journalistic rigour as say the New York Times…

            At the end of the day it’s people writing words. That’s not going to change. How newsgathering is funded and how the results are distributed is going to change a lot, it’s still in flux and there’s nothing in this world that can turn back the clock. The core of my argument is that embracing this process of change is better than fighting it.

      2. All Bob is saying is that you get what you pay for. If we are deluded into thinking that we are getting the same quality product we’d gotten in the past at the low low price of free, then we are mistaken.

        1. Except that in a lot of cases we paid good money and got crap; you don’t get what you pay for at all.  

        2. I disagree. The logical conclusion of that is that anything you pay for must be better than something you get for free. In the information age that’s Grade A bullshit. Paying for content doesn’t make the content automatically better. In many ways the internet gives journalists more flexibility and freedom, and in the right hands this means a better, not a worse product. Just because there’s more crap on the internet than there was in print doesn’t mean everything on the internet is crap. More authors from a wider range of socio-economic realities seems like a pretty good trade for institutional respectability. Respectability only goes so far anyway. Plenty of old-school salaried print journalists have been paid off, fabricated stories out of thin air, or neglected to check their facts.

          1. The problem with the evolving alternative business models is that the reader is no longer the consumer / paying customer. The reader herself is the product delivered to the advertisers or entertainment conglomerates.

          2. Subscription / cover prices are a non-neglibile source of revenue for newspapers and magazines. If the price the reader pays is removed completely from the business model, then the operation will serve the interest of whoever’s left paying the bills.

          3. Good point. But err how does this new breed of committed and professional journos you advocate earn a living if all the work they spend hours producing is to be free on the Internet? 

      3. The internet abhors a sell-out


        I would say they’re often raised up as heroes, and your “capitalism” screed above alludes to that, unwittingly it seems. Journalists “adapt” by getting paid speaking gigs from the very industries they’re supposed to cover, then do TED talks on how journalism is changing…..

        A lot of the most famous “with it” new media figures are industry shills/hacks.

      4.  Publishers are more like pimps than hookers. Always have been.

        That said, the near-universal ‘free information’ chorus in this thread strikes me as naive, to say the least. “Indies with cheap digital cameras and laptops can now scoop the old-guard print media journalists” — sure. But speaking as someone who’s spent significant parts of his life scrabbling to get by as a free-lancer, I do better work when backed up by an organization that provides health insurance, libel protection and yes, electrons – by covering the overhead that pays for the electricity that powers my laptop.

        I continue to believe that a new model for the economic support of real journalism will emerge. However, nothing I’ve seen so far provides any evidence to support that belief.

        1.   I completely agree with you that underpaid journalist’s abilities are greatly hindered by the stress of going paycheck to paycheck, not knowing what will happen if they get sick, their child gets sick or some other major life event prevents them from paying the bills.

          It’ll be a dark day if we find journalism relies on a bunch of college kids burning the free time that their student loans have provided and the 20 somethings that are riding on good health and low commitments.

          I think a potential model that’s slowly growing is the donation based organization that hold journalism high and pay journalists to actually investigate (not just churn out a a bunch of words.)  This is essentially a paywall; it’s just a wall of nagging about donations that is easily stepped over.

 and are slowly growing though are still light-years behind the major publishers on resources.  The quality of the content is quite good though I think Democracy Now sometimes gets stuck in bleeding heart specials that scare away viewers.

      5.  Indies with cheap digital cameras and laptops can now scoop the old-guard print media journalists… easily.

        Unfortunately a lot of investigative drudge work isn’t glamorous. It’s easier to post a cellphone pic on Twitter than it is to spend tons of man hours filing FOIA’s and trying to uncover corruption at some agency or whatever…  That has to be paid for in some way, whether it’s by buying articles or through donations for something.

      6. The issue then becomes crowding out and the amount of time available to a reader to sift wheat from chaff. The app that is able to rank, verify, authenticate and summarise the quadzillions of info-bytes pumped out on the Internet into a readable reliable news bite is gonna make a mint. Oh sorry that’s what journos try to do now!

  7. The comments on this story have been pretty dismaying.  Everyone (aside from Bob Garfield) seems to be falling into one or more of these camps:

    1) Didn’t read the article

    2) Everything will just work out fine, let’s just ignore it.

    3) “I think I remember a blogger scooping a headline at some point, so professional journalism is useless”

    4) “Dem’s the breaks, bro!”

    For a site that is ostensibly aimed at smarty-pants futurists, these are remarkably shallow readings of the state of journalism and its importance to a democracy.

    1. Journalism is no longer important to democracy as it is controlled by the same multinational conglomerates that now have free rein to contribute unlimited “political contributions” (bribes) to the political elite. The lead up to and the duration the Second Gulf War is a good example of this. No one at GE’s NBC rocked the boat too much for fear of upsetting jet turbine sales to the military or any of the neat-o ride-a-longs with the troops.

    2. Journalism? It began dying when fact was turned into opinion, and truth a commodity to be bought and sold like everything else. All by multinational corporations who judge our worth solely on what we are able to produce for them, and what we are able to consume from them. Those who believe they have some divine right to profit off our every thought and endeavor. They’ve been saturating us in disinformation and batshit crazy for so long that we now live in a society where an acceptable debate tactic is to accuse your opponent of being too smart.

      It’s these things that make me wonder whether sentience itself is an evolutionary dead-end.

      How’s that for smarty-pants futurism?

      1. That’s more like lame fatalism than smarty-pants futurism.  Maybe I misread the intended audience of this site.

  8. I did bother to read Garfield’s piece, and I don’t see much in it to disagree with. The end of professional journalism–not just in the bare-bones core sense of “performed for money” but the extended (and well established) sense of “good and reliable enough to be paid for”–is not a consummation devoutly to be wished.

    There is a significant amount of rejoicing at the end of gatekeeping, the expanding of opportunities, and the general democratization of commentary that the internet fosters. But there is a downside to those developments: some of those gatekeepers (professionals all) functioned to turn away at least some of the incompetent, the half-assed, the ill-informed, the dishonest, the delusional, and the rest of the noise- and junk-generators that plague everything from Wikipedia to the blogosphere.

    Crowdsourcing is the journalistic (or scholarly, for that matter) version of the flea market. Flea markets are wonderful institutions, but a world of nothing but flea markets–lacking, say, Target or Walgreens or Nordstrom or your local music store–means that a much larger portion of one’s shopping-energy budget is expended in vetting vendors, checking the quality of goods, and other quality-control and anti-snookering activities. There are situations in which crowdsourcing is useful, in the same way that Amazon product reviews are useful–as a first cut through a set of options, a first approximation of a solution to a problem, a rough estimate of how to rank one’s choices. But refining those first approximations requires a kind of expertise–you need nonsense filters, bullshit detectors, flack deflectors, and such. In ordinary life, we all develop a battery of such functions, but specialized or exotic or merely unfamiliar situations can require more than the ordinary-life skill set.

    Crowdsourced news–what we used to call gossip–has a notoriously high noise level. The rise of the professional journalist and of the notion that a news organization was not just a machine for making money and/or advancing the interests of its wealthy/powerful proprietor was a Good Thing. (Read up on the practices of Mr. Hearst–or those of his spiritual descendant, Mr. Murdoch.) As useful as it is to have hordes of ordinary people equipped with video cameras and internet connections out and about, the data that they provide does benefit from vetting, sorting, confirming, and general quality-control activities, as well as from context-setting. This last in particular arises from the aforementioned activities and from the accumulated experience of having paid attention for periods longer than whatever the current news cycle might be. (I think that’s called “history.”)

    And no “news” is utterly transparent (nor are our senses, for that matter, nor their electronic extensions), so the notion that the truth will emerge from the electronically-equipped crowd is a delusion. Even our own individual perceptions are the products of preconscious processes that filter and shape and interpret. Distributing those filters and editors across a crowd does not make them go away.

    The great virtue of the internet and the resources that have accumulated on it is accessibility. When I started doing journalism (as a feature and review writer rather than a daily/weekly-deadline reporter), probably 80% of my research depended on print materials, followed up by interviews (on the phone, fortunately). By the time I did my last stories (five years back), nearly all the initial spade-work had moved on-line, and only the feature-writing equivalent of breaking material required a phone call or (for the really busy source) an e-mail exchange. And filing copy and providing revisions, of course, had become incredibly fast, so the whole production cycle got tighter and smoother. You won’t hear me complaining about that.

    But those are enabling factors. What made me a respectable and trustworthy journalist had little to do with what the crowd knew or understood. I know how to sort through sources and their assertions. I know how to match and weigh competing opinions and interpretations. And in my areas of competence, I’m better at that than the journalistic equivalent of the Amazon product reviewer who one-stars something because it didn’t do what the specification list never claimed to do.

    BTW, I listen to “On the Media” as often as I can, and I never thought of Bob Garfield as a “crankypants.” But maybe that’s just because of my own willingness to chase the damn kids off my lawn.

    1. Amen. I’d feel much worse about losing quality journalism with the slow demise of newspapers in a world where they hadn’t been showing less and less intent to provide any.

    1.  Let’s try a word-substitution game: for “business model” substitute “water treatment system” or “fire department” or “interconnected banking system” or “public health system” or “educational system.” Gotta love those everything-is-economics metaphorical approaches to public life.

      Myself, I think it’s all about water treatment, but only because I’m flush with cash.

        1. Not to start or continue a wrangle, but two things: I was reacting most strongly to the “not my problem” part of the post. Maybe a whiff of social atomism. (Though that might be blowing in from elsewhere in the thread.) And while “the press” is indeed (in our polity) a privately-owned for-profit institution, it did get particular attention in the Bill of Rights, which suggests to me that a merely economic view of its place in our society is inadequate–in the same way that a merely economic view of, say, education is inadequate.

  9. I have a crazy idea that local newspapers should just opt out of the internet. When television appeared on the scene, newspapers didn’t scramble to start their own stations. Maybe they need to regard the internet in the same way: It’s a medium they don’t understand and can’t compete in, so they should stop fooling themselves. The best part? No more local news site comments.

  10. I will hotly debate that “improved standard of living” bit.  99% of the news doesn’t involve the world around us, but it definitely makes half of those around us paranoid, overreactive loons.  

  11. I think the working journalism model is yet to be sorted out.

    The idea of online journalism consumers being “looters” is a bit….sour.   I’ve never thought of Bob Garfield as Mr. Crankypants, but maybe on this one thing he’s Mr. CrankyPoint.  

       NPR has an online presence.  Good stuff, too.  And yet I listen to them all day every day, seems like.  And we’ve been NPR members forever (SO, Mr, Cranky-etc., we’re helping to PAY YOUR SALARY!!, etc. etc. :-).   However, I don’t think of the vast majority of NPR listeners who don’t donate as “looters” – they’re just either not yet enlightened, or feel as if they don’t have the means, or haven’t yet seen the value…or something else.   But that’s OK.

       There are similarities here to the movie/TV/music model – presented the right way, most people are willing to pay reasonable money for reasonable content.  And why not?  And why should the online journalism model be any different?

    SO, Bob Garfield – are all of those NPR listeners who don’t contribute “airwave looters”?  How do you see them?

  12. Poor Bob Garfield. The only productive member of society, surrounded by a sea of lazy no-accounts who have the audacity to use the tools available to them to make informed decisions. Bob should be making all the decisions, and we should be paying him handsomely for doing so. Otherwise, what good are we?

  13. is a surprisingly good Australian news outlet that has a membership wall for some articles (membership is free). Even that is too offensive for me to participate in. I’d rather not know if knowing means submitting myself to behaviour analysis.

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