Friday, March 18, 2011

Paying for the Times

Of course you knew it was coming. While all news organizations have been carefully calibrating their strategies to deal with the burgeoning Internet, no organization has been more deliberate and thorough than the New York Times. They have enough cash and clout to have nurtured their "brand" across these long and scary years of freebie access, and now seem confident that they will be able to charge top dollar for web access without losing their spot.

The news comes at the very moment that public broadcasting is being nixed. So recently after the fortunes of public radio were boosted by the need for all of us commuters to be in some kind of reliable touch after the events of 9/11.

Crises have a way of ratcheting up the power of the powerful, while winnowing out the small fry. How many local news outlets will be able to charge a fee for online access now that the news-reading public might have to make budget decisions about how much news they can afford? And who can afford to be without access to reliable and vetted sources of information?

It is possible that the Times has miscalculated, and that their move will boost the power of blogger aggregaters like HuffPo, on the Google model of keyterm auctions to game your profile and free or slave-wage content provision. It's also possible that everything will go the way of Rupert Murdoch, where no holds are ever barred to gain audience share. What you mock on the entertainment side, where the apparently liberal politics of the Simpsons or Glee merge with that strange libertarian Howard Stern schlock humor, is balanced by what makes you angry on the NewsCorp side if you digest the news at all.

As quickly as we have all forgotten how essential the reliable reporting of NPR was during our national disaster, we have also forgotten pandemic fears from SARS or H5N1 (or was it H1N1, or was it avian or was it swine flu)? It all has something to do with China and their horrid public health standards, right? Or is it the fact that they have dismantled their social health network in the same kind of thoughtless imitation of our wild capitalism which has them buying more Buicks now than we do?

It could be that public health requires society-wide approaches to healthcare now more than ever. It could be that flood and earthquake insurance should not be allowed brokerage on the open market, since those companies drag their feet or declare bankruptcy anyhow when the disaster is broad enough. Government political swings almost guarantee moral hazard, even as they insure that only those too big to fail will be protected against failure because the only safe bet is to go as big as you can as fast as you can.

* * *

Microsoft rolls out IE9. At first blush it hangs for me and so I'm back to Chrome. But their Windows Live services start to look and feel and behave with a little bit more slick compared to the hacker feel of Google. Bing has fit and finish, as the Internet turns away again from wildness. I'm having Bigness Blues.

Let's hope the Times will also flesh back out its news rooms and its international bureaus and that it will act in the public interest because that's what the lettered elite who form its main readership will demand. There are distinct advantages to not pandering to the unwashed masses the way that Fox does, albeit in the interests of the same economic ranks those Times elites belong to.

I for one would love for actual leadership to replace the purely moneyed definitions which now seem to have the monopoly on determination of who's elite and who's the hoi polloi. But leadership depends on trust and a servant mentality from the top. Our market structures presume that we should mistrust our leadership, especially now that our leadership is marketed too.

I'll pay for the Times sure, just like I'll pay for PBS. But I do have to say that I'd prefer that we all share the costs. For reasons of our public safety and our public health and our public rhetoric and the relative safety and peacefulness of our public squares, I certainly prefer that we work to decrease rather than to exacerbate the divide in means between the have-it-alls and the have-almost-nothings.

And it doesn't help that we export so much of our grey to China. I look forward to technologies which really do green the entire globe. Which instead of nuclear power-plants, make it attractive for us to mine our extravagant wattage waste in favor of less bloated bodies and homes. But that also will depend on public moneys being drawn away from subsidies to Big Oil and Big Corn and Soy.

It's a worrisome time right now. We're all going to end up paying for these times. That's the only certainty.

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