Morning Mediawire: What if we’re not the product?

April 30, 2018
Category: Newsletters

On Facebook, subscriptions and robust public media 

The classic judgment has been hauled out so frequently during Facebook’s recent scandals that it almost has become accepted wisdom: If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.


Slate’s Will Oremus argues, in a history of the aphorism, that it’s not necessarily true. And it’s dangerous to think so.

We’re not the product, Oremus argues in a post published Friday. We are customers of what it offers, or workers contributing to its content mass. Tarring all “free” media with this brush may aid the effort to build subscribers, but that may reinforce a divide where some have information access and others — think “low information voters” — could be swayed by rumor and propaganda. It also ignores that some societies, including America’s, considered information important enough to encourage its distribution through postal subsidies and public schools.

“How about this, then, as an (admittedly ungainly) alternative to that overused maxim: ‘If you aren’t paying for it with money, you’re paying for it in other ways,’” Oremus wrote. “Whether it’s your time, your privacy, or your intellectual property, you’re giving over to Facebook something of value every time you use it.”

Outgoing Gizmodo Media Company chief Raju Narisetti understood that when he proposed that media companies install a negative paywall — that is, give back part of a monthly fee to subscribers who contribute ideas, articles, comments or enthusiastically share or market stories to others. In the nonprofit journalism world, Melody Kramer of the Wikimedia Foundation has proposed “members” be allowed to donate coding skill work or time instead of high monthly contributions. For public broadcasting, she argues, it also would diversify the age of the membership base and the skill-set of an outlet.

Emily Bell of Columbia University’s Tow Center says some general interest sites may survive on the strength of their subscribers, but they can't bank on advertising anymore, a hypothesis reinforced by recent earnings reports.

There has to be something for all viewers, readers and listeners, Bell adds, akin to the BBC in the United Kingdom. Quality information, she argues, must reach “even people who can’t pay, even people who don’t necessarily think they need the news, or people who are left out of decision-making because they don’t fit the socio-demographic profile that means they would normally be included. To me, right now, there is almost nothing more important than having robust public service media available to citizens.”

America has chosen to supply modest amounts to public broadcasting. More than a century ago, communities across the country each made another choice to subsidize — and provide — information for all. All over America, propelled by a ruthless immigrant millionaire, communities chose to pay to maintain their public libraries. That millionaire, Andrew Carnegie, built 2,509 public libraries across America on that promise.

Slate’s Oremus makes a solid point that Americans — with better laws to protect data or broader thinking on information distribution — don’t have to limit themselves to an either-or "we're the product" argument, nor surrender to nihilism and helplessness. Yes, writers have to get paid, as The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle wrote Thursday in an essay entitled “A Farewell to Free Journalism,” but subscriptions are just one method of payment.

Quick hits

WHCA RECAP: Let's get this over with. First, here's comedian Michelle Wolf's speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner, annotated. Wolf dished on both Republicans and Democrats — and the media, telling them Trump “has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.” Others said the whole idea of cozying up to the people you cover in an administration that is encouraging America to distrust the media is repulsive. Asked CJR's Kyle Pope: "Can we finally all agree to put an end to this thing?”

TRUMP, OF COURSE: The president, who staged a rally in Michigan rather than attend, called the WHCA "an embarrassment." Margaret Talev, the WCHA president, criticized comedian Michelle Wolf's monologue as "not in the spirit" of unity. Molly Roberts wrote in the Post that Wolf "got it just right."

PURGE: The political site RedState, which had gained attention for its independence among conservative media, has fired most of its staff, including all writers who had criticized President Trump. "Those insufficiently loyal to the President were fired," RedState founder and former editor Erick Erickson wrote. He offered to take fired staffers in on stipends at his current site,, which he describes as focused “on a resurgent conservatism not tied to cults of personality.”

(Screenshot of the Denver Post vertical The Cannabist)

‘GUTTED’: The Denver Post’s The Cannabist vertical was once seen as a smart model for legacy industries, responsibly entering a subject with local and national interest. Earlier this month, the paper’s hedge-fund owners fired its last dedicated staff member, and on Friday, its founding editor, Ricardo Baca, offered to buy it. Earlier the month, Baca wrote in a Post guest commentary that the personnel-slashing owners have turned the Denver paper into “a dystopian novel.”

READ THIS STORY MONDAY: But not “today.” Poynter’s Kristen Hare explains the latest AP Stylebook changes.

REID'S APOLOGY: MSNBC talk show host Joy Reid tried to tamp down allegations that she wrote homophobic blog posts several years ago by saying she got hacked. But Saturday, during an apology on her show, she acknowledged she wasn't able to find evidence of tampering. 

OUT: Both the respected editor and veteran managing editor of the Religion News Service, considered  the “AP for religion reporting.” CJR reports a clash with an encroaching publisher led to Jerome Socolovsky’s firing, and prompted the resignation of managing editor Lauren Markoe. Stephanie Russell-Kraft reports.

PLATFORM OR OVERLORD?: Apple News wants outlets to ramp up production of videos. But it’s going to keep 50 percent of the revenue from them. Digiday’s Tim Peterson reports.

LOST SUMMER: In August 1978, right after employees of the New York Times went on strike, several of the paper’s photographers approached the city’s parks commissioner and offered to document scenes and people. But once they did, nothing was ever published. Now, 40 years later, the 2,924 color slides made across New York City’s five boroughs have been rediscovered. This resulting photo gallery (and soon to be exhibit) is an ode to a time when the city wasn’t quite so full of swagger. And best of all, there’s not a smartphone in sight.

What we’re reading

CASHING IN ON INSTAGRAM: Real people turning over their account to bots for dollars. BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz has the scoop.

LIVING WITH GRAMPS: Multigenerational families living together is on the rise, with more than 1 in 5 Americans doing so. That’s among seven recent demographic findings put together by Pew Research. By Anthony Cilluffo and D’Vera Cohn, who has the great twitter handle @allthingscensus

LITTLE AWARD ON THE PRAIRIE: She had written about failure, really — an undercapitalized family trying to dry-farm on parched land unsuitable for it. Caroline Fraser, author of “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” was in her Santa Fe home office two weeks ago when her husband walked in, a funny smile on his face. “You just won the Pulitzer Prize,” Fraser recalled him saying. “It was quite surprising.” By Matt Grubs of the Santa Fe Reporter.

POUR: This Hawaiian island got 50 inches of rain in 24 hours. Scientists say it's a warning of the future. By LAT's Heidi Chang.

BLESSED BE THE FRUIT: Quartz’s Lila MacLellan uses the weekend’s start of season 2 of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to tell us almost everything we need to know about its remarkable creator — the 78-year-old Canadian poet, novelist and social media superstar Margaret Atwood. One factoid: Atwood began writing “Tale” in Berlin and finished it a year later during a teaching stint in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

What we’re watching

"I don't try to make it funny, or else it's not funny." She’s 9 years old. She’s from New Jersey. And she’s a cartoon-caption contest ringer. Alice Kassnove’s suggested captions for the New Yorker’s weekly contest exploded online — and prompted the magazine to do this “instructional” video. Stay with the video, and Nick Offerman offers his own caption-writing tricks.

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