The always fantastic Letters of Note ran a series of three letters exchanged between E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, and W. B. Jones, Director of Communications for the Xerox Corporation in 1975.
Xerox had planned to sponsor a 23-page article by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Harrison Salisbury in Esquire magazine chronicling his travels around the country, which were also paid for by Xerox. While Xerox approached this is a refreshingly benevolent and transparent way, E. B. White feared that it would set a dangerous precedent that encroached on the spirit of the free press.
One section in E. B. White’s second letter stood out to me…
The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and to dwell in the light. The multiplicity of ownership is crucial. It's only when there are a few owners, or, as in a government-controlled press, one owner, that the truth becomes elusive and the light fails. For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other's follies and peccadillos, correct each other's mistakes, and cancel out each other's biases. The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters—the truth.
As the ownership of major news outlets becomes increasingly concentrated (what FreePress.net refers to as the Big Six dominate the US media), White’s insights strike me as more important now than ever.
Diversity of Publications
Over the last decade, we’ve seen the practice of blogging go from a fringe hobby to a massively mainstream endeavor. Some of the most respected news venues - particularly in the tech and political arenas - are not traditional print publications, but blogs. And while many blogs do not adhere to any rigorous journalistic standards, the best online publications do.
This all reminds me of the very early days of the press. Many small publications, all sharing their own slightly different take on the news. As White points out, that diversity is critically important. While major publications have been slowly eroding that diversity, the internet is overwhelming giving it back.
Which brings me to another important point…
Advertising in the Press
Whenever money changes hands, something goes along with it—an intangible something that varies with the circumstances. It would be hard to resist the suspicion that Esquire feels indebted to Xerox, that Mr. Salisbury feels indebted to both, and that the ownership, or sovereignty, of Esquire has been nibbled all around the edges... Not all corporations would approach subsidy in the immaculate way Xerox did or in the same spirit of benefaction.
Advertising has a long history in the newspaper business. Paper is expensive. Printing is expensive. For many papers, advertising was a necessary evil to get important ideas and opinions out the people.
Because of these dangers, reputable publications have very strict standards on how advertising is placed. If you’re writing a car review, for example, it’s considered bad form to place an ad for that car opposite the article.
Despite these safeguards, I believe advertising still has a negative effect on the press. For example, newspaper length is often determined not by how much news there is to share that day, but on how many ad spots there are and how much room is needed or left over.
And these adverse effects have now trickled onto the web.
Advertising on the Web
Advertising along the sides of articles is generally innocuous (though far too many bloggers place advertising ahead of user experience). Sponsored articles feel a bit more sinister. Where is the line between advertising and editorializing drawn? How might a reader identify it?
Recently I’ve noticed a new kind of hybrid advertising model: the sponsored feed. Rather than a full article, sponsors get a short post noting that they’re that week’s sponsor, and a one or two paragraph blurb about who they are and what they do.
The intent here is good, but there’s an implication that the blogger supports and approves of the product. Maybe they do, in which case it’s hard to begrudge them making a few dollars saying so. But what if they don’t? Or what if they do, but then at some point the product no longer meets their expectations. Would they feel comfortable saying so?
The Wrong Business Model
Advertising exists in print because it’s prohibitively expensive without it. That’s not the case with blogs.
You can get a self-hosted blog going for about $70 a year. If you’re short on funds, you can let Wordpress host it through a custom domain for $15 a year. And if you’re really cheap, a free Wordpress or Tumblr domain blog isn’t the worst thing in the world.
The other argument in favor of advertising is that the best writers won’t do it if they’re not fairly compensated. I agree. Good journalism is worth good money.
I don’t believe advertising is the right model to pay for that journalism on the internet.
What will people pay for?
So what’s an online publication to do? The popular argument is that you can’t charge for content on the internet - there are simple too many free alternatives.
I don’t have any great answers, but one of the most compelling alternatives I’ve seen comes from Oliver Reichenstein of Information Architects. Oliver suggests we create a “business class” for news, in which users pay for a superb reading experience.
Quote a publishing house executive, Oliver writes…
So tell me: Why do people fly Business Class? In the end, an airplane brings me to the same place regardless of whether I fly Economy or Business Class... People pay for Business Class because they don’t want to be tortured in Economy. They get faster lanes at the terror check. They get an extra glass of champagne. The stewards are more attentive. They get off the plane more quickly. They get the feeling of a higher social status.
What if we could do something similar with online publishing? (Oliver explores ways we might do that in more detail in his post.)
And maybe high-quality writing is something people will pay for. The New York Times seems to be doing alright despite their pay wall, though I’m still not convinced that’s the best business model.
Letters of Note, while not a news site, is publishing a book containing the best letters from the site. Site curator Shuan Usher was able to quickly secure funding from regular readers - not VCs or major publishers - and is moving forward with his project. While this model wouldn’t work for most sites, it’s yet another example of a creative alternative to advertising.
(Worth noting, Shuan does have one small ad on his site.)
Back to the Beginning
The exchange between E.B. White and W. B. Jones is insightful, fiercely cordial and quite persuasive. In fact, because of White’s letters, Xerox actually pulled out of the project. People just don’t write like that anymore.
Visit Letters of Note and read the full exchange. It’s well worth your time.