Interesting Reads: Rise of the Paywall Press

Fascinating and well done piece at the Washington Monthly about how the trade press has prospered while general interest newspapers have floundered in covering the workings of government. Has the jaw-dropping fact that a publisher of trade economics letters (like the kind I used to shelve when I was a tech at the Library of Congress) sold for multiples of what either the Post or the Boston Globe sold (much less Newsweek).

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A subscription to Platt’s Oilgram, must read for the energy industry. It will set you back a cool, $21K, and you thought the NYTimes digital subscription was dear.

“Even with all its eyebrow-raising revenue schemes, an ascendant trade press is preferable to the only probable alternative, which is no press coverage at all (an increasingly common situation in many state capitals). And from my own experience and interviews I did for this story, I can say with confidence that trade press reporters are not brainwashed by the industries they cover or blind to the public responsibilities they have to find the truth and report it. No one I spoke to thought that a trade reporter held a distinct disadvantage over any other mainstream reporter to run down a great story and to have it make its way into the public consciousness. But the fact remains that on a day-to-day basis more and more information is flowing to Washington’s elite while less trickles out to the American public. And while trades vie zealously for a larger slice of that Washington Insider market, publications that appeal to a wider audience are either struggling to keep their lights on or leaving traditional reporting about government behind altogether.”

Although casting light on this digital transformation of the DC press as a sideline, the key point here is that general coverage of the workings of government–in the sense of that corny phrase “Who Will Tell The People?” is getting short changed. The trades are written for an audience of elites, they are specialized beyond the point of interest or context to non-insiders, and they are behind paywalls that require subscriptions in the thousands. But what they report on is how our government works, and what that means for policy and society.

I remember years ago something said by some op-ed writer (Frank Rich I think, but I can’t be certain) predicting a baleful era of all opinion all the time. The reason I think it was Rich, is it was pegged to somebody leaving starry heights of the Op-Ed page of the Times to go write for NYMag, and whether that was a “loss” to the Gray Lady.  Baloney, was the response. Opinion is easy, and if we think we are bathed in it 24/7 now just wait a few years. On the whole it’s not even that expensive, easy to cover and often empty. Actual reporting on the other hand, be it local, national or international, costs serious money, requires expertise and context, and takes risks (sometimes at enormous personal cost). That’s the dimension of journalism that nobody has figured out how to pay for generally. Interesting to think–thanks to this story (which has some real reporting in it, by the way)–that the trades have found a way to cover the government corner of this world, and to make it pay. Only rub, it’s just for the few.

Well worth reading the whole piece.

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