The journalistic 1%

It’s a tough time for aspiring journalists. Business models are failing faster than new ones can pop up, layoffs and buyouts are the norm at numerous legacy publications. How might we improve the outlook for young would-be journalists? What about by demanding a little something back from the journalistic 1%?

Here’s Matt Yglesias in a post on copyright:

It’s no secret that high-end income inequality has increased substantially over the past several decades. That’s happening for a variety of reasons. One reason, however, is that the returns to being a superstar content creator are much much higher in 2011 than they were in 1981. That’s because the potential audience is much bigger… At the same time, the cost of producing digital media content has fallen thanks to improved computers and information technology.

I mention the distributional impact of superstar economies in this post as well. We’re seeing this at the level of publications too, in the “missing middle” phenomenon described bo Matthew Hindman.

All of this makes sense. Why would I read my local economics columnist if I could read Yglesias or Tyler Cowen? In commentary and analysis, at least, it’s obvious how digital communications would mean a shift to superstar economies in media. With that comes superstar salaries for folks like Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Friedman (though his pre-dates the explosion of the blogosphere), etc.

So why not ask the journalistic 1% to give something back? What if Friedman, Sullivan, etc. pledged to spend 50% of their take from book deals only to endow fellowships for young writers, or even for interesting media startups? As America has become more unequal with a tiny percentage of “superstars” getting an increasing share of the wealth, the Occupy movements have demanded… well ok they haven’t demanded much yet, but you get the idea. Why doesn’t the journalist community demand more systematic generosity from its (relatively less rich) 1%? The beauty here is that journalism is a field blessed with a serious professional ethic that might actually make something like this possible, as compared to finance.

UPDATE: The Atlantic’s Nick Jackson notes that the journalistic 1% aren’t really all that rich, that it’s really the .01% that I’m referring to.

Slouching toward Winklevi

My original post lamenting our potential “Age of the Winlevi” is here. And here’s the latest evidence:

Kickstarter is a cool website that you may have heard about. Basically people with ideas can propose them on the site, and then raise funds from a distributed network of Kickstarter readers. It’s not a revolutionary concept, people have been raising money from investors from time immemorial. But with the Internet, it’s easier to reach a kind of broad audience and you can cut out some of the active work of financial intermediation.

It seems, though, that someone already “invented” this idea and wants to sue. In particular, Brian Camelio, who runs an actual site and is by no means a pure troll, holds a patent on “Methods and Apparatuses for Financing and Marketing a Creative Work”

That’s Matt Yglesias. As he said, that’s what we usually call competition. I ended my last post on this with a long Lessig quote. Here’s just part of it:

This is a hard fact for lawyers to understand (protected as they are by exclusionary rules such as the bar exam), but most of production in our society occurs without any guarantee of government protection. Starbucks didn’t get a government monopoly before it risked a great deal of capital to open coffee shops around the world. All it was assured was that people would have to pay for the coffee they sold; the idea of a high-quality coffee shop was free for others to take.

This matters a lot. If we allow ourselves to fall into the trap (or don’t climb out of it, depending on your view) of a Winklevi IP culture, we’re signing innovation’s death warrant.

Are HuffPo’s bloggers the same as sources?

Ezra Klein says so. The comparison isn’t quite 100%, but it’s a lot closer than most people think. I agree with pretty much everything below:

At the New York Times, academics and activists and authors lend their time, name and authority to the publication. The payoff? A quote in the paper, some influence over the story, a bit of publicity for their work and a role in the broader debate. But no money. Never any money. The New York Times would fire a reporter for offering sources money.

At the Huffington Post, you’re seeing the same transaction, but run more efficiently: Academics, activists and authors lend their time, name and authority to work they’ve written themselves, that gets published at its full length, where their names always appear up at the top. The tradeoff is that, in most cases, fairly few people see their work. But that’s better than no one seeing their work, which is often the realistic alternative.

Are these unpaid writers helping to make Arianna Huffington rich? They are. But the insight, expertise and inside information of unpaid sources has made many newspapers rich, too. And the fact that the work those sources put into those subjects appeared under someone else’s byline made it worse, not better.

At its best, journalism brings a lot of different perspectives into the conversation. But it’s always been the people aggregating these perspectives who got paid. That remains true at the Huffington Post, and perhaps it’s something that the Huffington Post’s unpaid contributors should be angry about. But it’s not something that the journalists and news outlets have much standing to condemn. We’ve long been asking people to contribute pro bono labor to the products sold by our for-profit companies.

Also, you don’t have to buy this comparison to realize this suit is ridiculous. And can we please not turn this into a lefty protest? More good thoughts on that part from Matt Yglesias.