Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The New York Times and the information theory of the leisure class, Part 4/4

(This is the concluding section of a long essay I am posting online, “The Information Theory of the Leisure Class, or, Why I am Dropping My NYT Home Subscription.)


Price in the land of the leisure class, or, Veblen puts lipstick on a pig

Thus the ordinary connection between price and quality, supply and demand, evaporates, as with other ‘leisure class’ goods. Subscribing to the Times is like buying expensive, but not such high quality, chocolates in Paris, where you do it for the sake of making a gift back home in genuine Parisian wrapping paper, instead of merely buying a higher quality chocolate in Trader Joe’s for genuine gourmet value.

Hence dropping Times home delivery is, for my family and me, the way one minor individual subscriber re-establishes the connection of price to quality. I’ve decided against conspicuous consumption; I’ve decided to pay the actual value of the goods online, by going online. Pay, that is, exactly the value that the Times itself puts on it as factual information, rather than a prestige good. There is a substantial psychic cost to me in doing this, by the way – and not just to my New Yorker wife, losing the paper connection to home. I’m an academic – and as a conservative academic (heaven forfend), there is a genuine prestige benefit to flaunting my paid-for, pulp-paper, hard-copy, print edition of the New York Times at my university office and around, thus showing my colleagues that I am broad-minded enough to pay for the damn thing, something they wouldn’t bother to do and, anyway, they wouldn’t ever consider subscribing to the WSJ or the Washington Times, and as for the Weekly Standard, I doubt they’ve even heard of it. Losing that is a genuine cost in conspicuous academic consumption.

Yet the Times’s preferred path out of the wasteland of commodity pricing of its opinion and into the promised land of premium pricing that same opinion depends crucially upon being able to repackage its cheaply produced opinion pieces as facts, worthy of respect, and pricing, as such. If the mask of facticity falls, so finally does the price. It will eventually be reflected directly in fewer premium print subscriptions or indirectly as the lower price online advertisers are willing to pay or as some other loss of value. It will show up, somehow, some way.

Note that the contrast with the Wall Street Journal news pages could not be greater. The WSJ would pay a stiff price in readership for errors in business news, including ideologically driven ones. It is helped by its long-time strategy of wrapping, as the Economist once observed, a relatively opinion-free newspaper, well written but deliberately low-affect, around an ideologically-driven conservative magazine on the opinion pages. In that regard, unlike the Times, it has the best of both worlds. In this, it is helped by its policy of allowing the op-ed pages some amount of independent factual reporting, in the manner of a true magazine – which reduces the temptation to do it in the rest of the paper. In the WSJ’s news pages, especially the core business news, the quality of information drives its price, which is to say that it has so far eschewed the Times’s Veblenesque prestige pricing model. Murdoch could change this at the WSJ, but so far he has not.

And yet note, too, that in today’s financial crisis, the Times’s regular business reporters and writers have impressively risen to the occasion. Times editor Bill Keller was not wrong recently to boast about the Times’ Business pages’s superb reporting and explanations. What explains this sudden influx of factual quality? Well, when what’s at stake are not superfluous luxury goods, but the readers’ own money, facts suddenly matter once again, even to bankers (or ex-bankers) in Manhattan. Veblen is out, ordinary value for price back in, when it comes to the facts about money that matter to readers, not just attitude.

Even so, certain political topics, without which the financial crisis is incomprehensible, remain firmly in the cocoon, to be mentioned blandly and vaguely if at all, starting with Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd, Chuck Schumer, Barack Obama, and their relationships to Fannie Mae lobbying money, Friends of Angelo special mortgages, etc., etc. Apparently the Times has decided that never again – never, ever, ever, ever again – will it repeat the ideological ignominy of having pop up, ten years later, a precisely-worded news story such as Steven A. Holmes’s from 1999, embarrassingly putting the Times’s imprimatur on a devastatingly prescient, witheringly factual assessment of where Democratic Party politicization and cronyization of subprime mortgages and Fannie Mae would lead – and did.


Who will pay for reporting of facts?  Who, indeed?

Which sadly puts in a somewhat different light what Carr says, correctly and ominously, that the difference between “print dollars and digital dimes – or sometimes pennies – is being taken out of the newsrooms that supply both.” Very true. It is also true that the blogosphere is not about developing new facts. It happens, but only very, very occasionally. The blogosphere is about (in Carr’s well-chosen word) annotating the mainstream media. But if that’s the case, why then has the Times decided to join the annotators, rather than making its stand (as Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds has urged legacy newspapers to do) on the value of the facts as such, and figuring out what and which and how and to whom to sell them? Carr skips over those questions and asks instead, regarding those peculiarly missing facts, who in the brave new world of Web economics will pay for the “phone calls that reporters have to make?”

Fair question – if it’s really about facts. But I received a phone call a few months ago from a Times reporter, one William Glaberson, who writes front page stories on Guantanamo, calling with a perfectly legitimate, although dry-hole, query about proposals for terrorism courts. Fine. What he actually said in the phone call, however, was, “So you would agree that …” – followed by a lengthy, convoluted paragraph of all sorts of “facts” and assertions that he had already worked out in his own head and intended for me to agree to, in his language, so that he could stick it in his obviously already preset narrative. But, sorry, that was as obviously dubious as it was his seemingly normal modus operandi. The phone call, which Carr wonders who will pay for, turns out, in the world of the Times, only-too-easily to be an exercise in confirmation bias, not the discovery of new facts. Not necessarily, of course – but if your pricing model skews toward Veblen-prestige goods pricing, you skew your information gathering away from the Very Great Reporter Gretchen Morgenson of the business pages and toward the not-so-great Magazine Opinion Writer William Glaberson, and finally you give it up altogether for the Online Nurse Judith Warner. So, if you ask me whether it matters that the Times has a way to pay for that phone call or, for that matter, pay Glaberson, the answer is no. The Republic will not fall if Glaberson has to make an honest living in advertising or Warner has to go back merely to raising her children without a national mouthpiece through her womb.

It would be nice if the world were as Carr implies it: the heroic Times struggles to do its fact collection against a bitter economic world that does not value “the facts” and is barely willing to pay for its valiant efforts. There is indeed a demand-side problem – if your target audience seeks confirmation bias first, and especially if you have nurtured them on that view of a newspaper, they will not be very willing to pay for “mere” facts. And so they are not. Yet the Times threw in the “fact” towel before the battle was even joined, saw the future and decided it was in opinion writing asserted as fact in order both to charge a higher price than a mere opinion magazine could charge and seek to satisfy, at least superficially, the fact-based raison d’etre of the daily newspaper. It looked at its ‘elite’ readership and concluded that, at bottom, those readers were not very interested in facts, much less in paying for them. Instead they wanted high falutin’, high-gravitas chat based around politics. And so the Times has proceeded to offer it.

As a business model – not politics – I’m skeptical this can work on a daily basis. There are reasons why magazines appear weekly or monthly, not daily. As politics – well, the Times’s relentless cramdown of skewed, confirmation bias opinions-as-facts this election cycle represents one of two things. The cramdown might so annoy that segment of its readership that still cares about facts on the traditional basis of them being, well, true that it recalculates price in relation to facticity and drops the paper subscription, crippling the business model even further. In that case, I sincerely hope that the Times’s and its employees think the political self-satisfaction was worth it. Or, alternatively, the cramdown might handsomely pay off in cementing the emotional bond ever more closely with the core subscribing, offline readership and allow it to raise the price, directly and indirectly, to a smaller, wealthier, more devoted leisure class audience. But is there really room for a daily New Yorker?


I’d pay good money for a grey, affectless, fact-driven newspaper that’s

not a magazine and not an online cocoon – would you?

Which means, in the end, that my family and I are (until tomorrow, that is) subsidizing through our annual print subscription, at $600 post tax dollars, a publication that the Times itself is already moving to discount to the content quality of an online publication sustained by zero online subscription costs and the pennies of digital advertising. It is also true that the Times’s online ‘look’ is magnificent – it has invested heavily in recreating as close as anyone has come to the genuine look and feel of the print edition, and with many hyperlink advantages. It is much more like a newspaper than the online WSJ site; makes money from subscribers, but that’s precisely because its web presence is not as a newspaper but as an indispensible research tool for the business world. It is systematically organized, and it feels like what it is – a highly organized database. The Times’s site, by contrast, feels like the newspaper – a place to browse.

This is to say, however, that the Times online is a wonderfully successful, fabulously designed … website. If the economics of moving online were merely about the form of delivery, none of this would be particularly momentous; win-win for newspaper and subscribers, cheaper cost of distribution for producers and, for increasing numbers of consumers, more convenient form of delivery. But it’s not. It’s about advertising revenues, subscription revenues, and what the economics of no-subscription revenues (zero) plus online advertising streams (pennies) will support in the way of content. Which came first – the chicken of opinionification or the egg of the loss of paying readers like me, not willing to pay for mere opinion? Who knows. But my family is leaving the Veblen-world of conspicuous consumption of the hard copy Times. It’s time for us to treat ourselves the way the Times so clearly sees us – as readers of the online edition for free. It’s a future, I regret to report, in which the Judith Warners, not the David Carr’s, are the opinion divas, and in which facts, to the extent they are still gathered, are carefully marshaled in support of predetermined emotional conclusions that bolster the biases of the online audience.

Whether the world would support a paper, online or on paper, devoted to entirely affectless statements of fact, sustained only on the basis that this is the news, I do not know. I wish someone would try. Let’s try a daily paper defined by its greyness, sustained by its lack of emotional content, nurtured by its utter indifference to sensibility over sense. Today’s Times regards itself as a magazine of upper bourgeois elite sentiment and sensibility, increasingly fact-lite, and destined to live under the economics of the Web. The Times thinks even less of its readers, curiously, than I do. But given that it has discounted the content, I may as well discount the price.


Kenneth Anderson is a law professor at Washington College of Law, American University, Washington DC. (This article was written in November 2008, published in abbreviated form by Pajamas Media in November online; I have updated it and altered it somewhat as of January 2009.)

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