Free, Says Gladwell: Such a Little Word, But Oh, the Difference It Makes

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MalcolmGladwellIn the last nine months, due to spending an hour or two of my week on the daily, live-streaming FoxNews.com show The Strategy Room, friends and colleagues often assume my appearances are compensated. They are not. I would like them to be, of course, but virtually no one on The Strategy Room, to my knowledge, is compensated, save the various individuals who are already under contract as commentators. Also, I’m no fool: I know perfectly well that if I were a Republican, with a set of strong, proven conservative credentials, my odds of someday finding a comfortable spot on the Rupert Murdoch payroll would increase substantially. Nevertheless, I genuinely love the gig because it represents the establishment, embellishment, burnishing of a brand: The Clyde Fitch Report, the nexus of arts and politics, also known as yours truly. (We can debate the arguable muddling of brand identity on another day.) When colleagues or friends question the reasoning behind my continuing to appear, I remind them that The Strategy Room technically (and technologically) is a news show; technically, guests are sources. And one does not pay for sources, according to the enduring, sacred standards of Old Journalism, whose unfortunate tail-end I arrived on a decade ago.

Nor am I compensated when I contribute to the Fox Forum, Fox’s version of a blog, roughly the equivalent of (some might say answer to) the Huffington Post. Each week, I write short paragraphs as part of a feature, called the Obama Change Index, that considers a range of topics — law and justice, dealing with Congress, social issues — from the POV of a Republican, Democrat and Independent. I have also taken advantage of opportunities graciously afforded to me, formerly a mere theater critic, a mere arts journalist, to contribute essays to the Fox Forum, including one on Carrie Prejean (“Dear Miss California, You’re Not a Bigot — You’re You“), one on the idea of a cabinet-level position called Secretary of the Arts or Culture (“Do We Need a Secretary of the Arts?“) and one on — I swear I couldn’t help myself — Michael Jackson (“America Created Michael Jackson“).

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Of these efforts, colleagues and friends often also ask why I would opt to write for Fox for free. After all, from the fall of 1990, when I began contributing reviews to the Village Voice and what is now called the New York Resident while still an undergraduate, until late last year, when I was downsized out of my position as a national editor at Nielsen Business Media following seven years with the company (along with so many fellow editors and writers), I always derived some kind of income from my writing and editing. Even paid a pittance, it was axiomatic that compensation determined the difference between the avocational and the professional: writing on spec, and for damn good reason, is as close as any self-respecting professional should come to the dreaded Amateur Hour. Before 1999, I derived a not inconsiderable, if hardly self-supporting, subsidiary income from my work; this dovetailed perfectly with my strong desire in those days to fashion a career as a theater practitioner. (The desire hasn’t left me; sanity prevailed.) From 1999 on, I derived a full-time living from my work. In fact, the reason I finally turned to journalism was because my I realized that it was my editorial skills, not insight into David Rabe or whomever, possessed a seemingly sure, significant monetary value in the marketplace. So why, colleagues and friends make the point, would I give it away for free?

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My rationale has been career-building: Never having participated in electoral politics beyond voting, never having worked on a campaign, never offering more than an average citizen’s view of the process of politics in our nation, I am embarking on a career transition in the middle of worst fiscal climate in which one could imagine doing so. The chance to appear on Fox, to score a byline — that’s sweat equity, I’ve contended, for some payday down the line. The question is where and when.

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Actually, after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, the more pertinent question is how — as in, How will such a payday ever be feasible? I need not paraphrase Gladwell’s paraphrasing of the book — this essay is already derivative enough — but simply put, Anderson’s argues that because information “wants” to be free, and because anyone can play the role of journalist, information will indeed be free — there will be very little or no revenue streams directly tied to its creation, marketing and distribution. Journalists, writers, editors will all have substantially less value, if any value at all, in the marketplace. Gladwell quotes from the book:

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There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free-paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards-may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.

Like Gladwell, I also question Anderson’s dystopian view that the free can be leveraged for revenue: “It would be nice to know, as well,” Gladwell queries…

just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for ‘non-monetary rewards.’ Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels?

Put another way, Gladwell doesn’t necessarily dispute the existence of a “downward pressure” in the value of content, but he doesn’t necessarily think it leads inexorably toward a new and sustainable business model. His point seems to be that such pressure could well be leading to no business model. This is why Gladwell returns to the anecdote that opens his piece, in which the publisher of Dallas Morning News testifies at a Congressional hearing about how difficult it is to strike a viable business deal with Amazon.com. The dot-com pioneer, the publisher said, could be willing to pay for the newspaper’s content. However, it would do so only by paying the newspaper a mere 30% of overall revenue — and the content-provider must additionally permit Amazon to deliver the content by whatever platform it chooses, be it by Kindle, candle or anything else. The subtext here is hardly subtextual: content isn’t that valuable anymore. Of Anderson’s book, with its penchant for declaring this or that “iron law” of the digital economy, Gladwell now asks this perceptive question: “Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?” Indeed, why do I write and appear on Fox for free?

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Just so I don’t appear to be gladhanding Gladwell, I also think at least one of his comparisons is inapt: How content is packaged, news reported and information gathered is not akin to the staggering costs involved in developing, testing and marketing new drugs. (On a side note, ever notice how the pharmaceutical companies trot out this argument any time they’re in trouble? Yet no one, it seems to me, ever gains access to balance sheets — to discover line for line and expenditure for expenditure how much it really costs to create a new drug from start to finish. Could there be awful inefficiencies and waste in the process? Could it be driven by tough, if necessary, governmental regulations? You bet!) A better comparison Gladwell uses is the business model of the Wall Street Journal, which currently boasts more than one million payers for online content. So content needn’t always be free.

The most immediate evidence of the dysfunctionality of “free is free” is right back in my old stomping grounds, theater journalism, which is to say arts journalism as a whole. Aside from the ever-deepening issue of newspapers, magazines and other print outlets devoting less and less space to live performance (New York Press now only covers theater ripe for cliche, such as the “experimental”), the availability of paying work for journalists has faded to a point of anorexia and what does offer compensation might as well buy a hotel, maybe two, on Mediterranean Avenue. Theater bloggers hope for revenue someday, of the decent or better-than-decent variety, from their toils, but for the moment they’ll be content to write for free because they receive compensation in other forms, including free tickets, free networking opportunities, free access, a chance to self-promote both in the world of theater blogging and the wider world beyond. The pioneers in the digital space that covers New York theater — Martin Denton’s nytheatre.com and its related sites’ Andy Propst’s American Theater Web; Elyse Sommer’s Curtain Up — surely derive some income from their keyboard strokes, but I doubt any of them are rubbing noses with Eloise at the Plaza. (Nytheatre.com’s parent company, The New York Theatre Experience, is a nonprofit.) Those who may write for any of these or other sites from time to time — say, the corps of critics that coalesces annually at nytheatre.com in order to cover the New York International Fringe Festival — are also uncompensated. It’s not as if the proprietors of these sites refuse to recognize the value of content or of those who create it; there simply isn’t enough revenue in the mix for the old model, the old model I bought into, to work.

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Free is free in journalism because no adequate methods exist to force Amazon to value content at a level to which the previous generations grew accustomed. And with increasing angst in the media about President Obama’s plans for the nation, the chance that the nation’s free press can be bailed out — or, more likely, regulated — is virtually nil. I had to laugh out loud when I read the phrase “credentialed halls of traditional media” in the quote Gladwell chose to run in his review: The New Yorker is one of the last bastions of a mode of journalism that measures the value of its content in part by the compensation of its staff. It has a staff. And that, not an Anderson-style race to the bottom, sets all of those writers free.