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Another Perspective



OMISSION ACCOMPLISHED

In mid-September, the New York Times began charging a fee for access to some of the material on its web site.  The service is called New York Times Select and its sequestered content includes essays by the newspaper's top political commentators, plus some sports columns and video clips.  Other news outlets, including technical publishers, are watching.  So are vendors with online technical libraries.  For all these parties, there is much more to this story than a web site's new revenue model.  The Times is also risking its influence, the conceit that it can and should, as Mr Dooley said, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Finley Peter Dunne
Finley Peter Dunne
Never as widely known as his Mr Dooley

Martin Dooley said a lot of smart and funny things, and his words are widely quoted, often by people who have no idea who he was or what he really meant.  Mr Dooley's work was published in a number of Chicago newspapers for more than two decades beginning late in the Gay but heterosexual Nineties.  Dooley was, however, not a real person.  He was a character created by a newspaperman, Finley Peter Dunne, with a voice written in a phonetic Irish brogue.  Dooley filled about 700 columns with articles that were later collected into several books.  His observations were not only popular in their city of origin but also, via syndication, across the United States.  They were even admired by one of targets of Dooley's barbs, Theodore Roosevelt, who, in the fullness of time, befriended Dunne.

Nobody can say what would have been the result if newspapers carrying Dooley's column charged more, even a penny more, for a full edition than one that was exactly the same but without Dooley.  No press baron dared to find out.  What is clear is that publishers leavened their papers with the lively work of columnists, and considered opinion pieces as much a part of a complete newspaper as the hard news and sports coverage.

The New York Times print edition remains in that mold, as do the offerings of other newspapers.  But printed newspapers aren't what they used to be.  The newspaper business is under pressure as more people get more of their news online.

During the twentieth century, newspapers had two big threats to contend with.  Radio and television, with their immediacy and free availability (once the audience bought receivers) gained influence at the expense of the press.  But neither medium gives the audience the volume of information, the choice of content or control over timing, the way a printed newspaper does.  So, while the newspaper business had to adjust, it did not have to deal with a direct challenge from broadcast media.  Newspapers did lose a key role in suburban and rural areas, where radio so effectively reaches the morning commuter, but gained power in the largest cities, where the morning paper remains a favorite companion of passengers on public transportation systems.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
Enjoyed Dunne and Dooley
despite the occasional rough ride

In this century, the newspapers face another challenge, and it appears to be a lot formidible than that posed by broadcasting.  The Internet offers in-depth coverage, gives the audience unmatched choice of content, and freedom to manage timing.  Urban commuters remain a key audience for the press, but that will change if wireless Internet access becomes free or cheap, if public transit systems get signal repeaters, and if portable receivers become a feature of cell phones and portable media players.  A big change could be coming to exurbia, where portable gadgets that can retrieve customized news and read it out loud would give the Internet a chance to compete with radios.

So, it's no wonder that newspaper publishers, who generally stuck to their own medium as radio and television became entrenched, see a successful presence on the Internet as a vital opportunity and, possibly, an activity that will be necessary for their survival.

If the Internet usurps the newspapers power to influence, the Times' decision to sequester an important part of what makes it unique could backfire.  The main news stories of the moment are available from many sources in the web, as they are in print.  While the New York Times has a unique and distinguished roster of news reporters, so does the Washington Post, which is fully available at no cost on the Internet, and so do dozens and dozens of other newspapers that are also available for free.  On the web, the Times has to compete with a lot of other good and ambitious newspapers, and with other media organizations, too.

A prominent example is the BBC.  The BBC is one of the world's most influential news organizations despite its status as a state medium.  Its web may be the paperless paper of the future.  Unsurprisingly, the BBC web runs news stories without bylines or syndicate citations, a policy that may signal its group thinking, its delusions of objectivity, or both.

By taking its most prominent essayists out of their general context, the Times created another medium, the Fifty Bucks A Year Times.  Newspaper folk are quite familiar with the effects of taking material out of context.  In fact, they are famous for taking even Mr Dooley's words out of context, completely changing their meaning.

The press, in Dooley's opinion, was not the bastion of social reformers who afflict and comfort as appropriate, but an establishment that was far too full of its own grandeur.  The full quote from Dooley, from which so many press people, acting like mendacious theatrical press agents pulling a few pretty words from an ugly review, is this:

Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us.  It runs th' polis force an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, conthrols th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward.  They ain't annything it don't turn its hand to fr'm explaining th' docthrine iv thransubstantiation to composin' saleratus biskit.  Ye can get anny kind iv information ye want to in ye'er fav'rite newspaper about ye'ersilf or annywan else.  What th' Czar whispered to th' Imp'ror Willum whin they were alone, how to make a silk hat out iv a wire matthress, how to settle th' coal sthrike, who to marry, how to get on with ye'er wife whin ye're married, what to feed th' babies, what doctor to call whin ye've fed thim as directed — all iv that ye'll find in th' pa-apers.

Even Mr Dooley's greatest fans, including Theodore Roosevelt, would hardly have been surprised by the gap between Dooley's original words and their heavily redacted exploitation.  Lifting words and using them in ways their speaker never intended has been a common if ignoble operating procedure of media since the days of scribes.

Pressed for Time
Newspapers worry that their days are numbered, but that the Internet could be salvation, if they can only figure out how to turn a profit there.  So far, they are having mixed luck.  Some widely read newspapers also have very popular web sites, others do not.  And some newspapers with modest print circulation seem to do pretty well on the web.  A quick look at the top 50 newspapers in the USA, their circulation, and their web visibility tells some of the story.

It is, then, perhaps fitting that the Times' columnists have had their work copied from the context of the newspaper's Select offering and posted in quite a few newsgroups and on blogs.  Yes, the Times' readers are no better than the press lords who run the paper.  They are a pack of thieves.

Shortly after the Times moved its columnists into Select, one web wiseacre started a site called Never Pay Retail.  It told visitors how to find the most prominent Select columns for free.  Well, actually it did this only some of the time.  In order to keep the attentions of the Times' lawyers to a minimum, Never Pay Retail did not tell visitors how to find all the purloined columns; it only listed postings it felt were legitimate (by accident or design).  On November 13, Never Pay Retail hung up its spurs, but that doesn't mean the Times has blocked pirate publication.  One way to participate in the systematic violation of the Times' intellectual property rights that works pretty well is to use a search engine pointed at blogs.  Most days, postings of popular Select material can be found within a couple hours of publication through Technorati or Google Blog Search.  Just look for "Frank Rich" or "Paul Krugman" or whoever your favorite columnist happens to be and you can see the tasty fruit of crime on display.  The search results may change as blog content blinks on and off, very possibly in response to emails or phone calls from the night shift at the New York Times' legal department.

This unseemly conduct on the part of the distinguished readership of the Times would hardly have surprised Mr Dooley, who said he trusted everyone but always cut the deck.

— Hesh Wiener October 2005


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