Let's Pray for the Safe Release of the BoingBoing Bloggers

Or, Why Knee-Jerk Hating on Pay Walls Is Profoundly Myopic

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Simon Dumenco
Simon Dumenco

Given all the turmoil around the world, it's an incredibly harrowing time to be journalist. Case in point: Four bloggers from BoingBoing, as you've probably already heard, were captured by pro-government forces while covering the Libyan uprising. BoingBoing, of course, has long been one of the most popular blogs in the world -- the Technorati Top 100 ranking puts it at No. 6, just below TMZ -- and the Libyan situation comes fast on the heels of BoingBoing journalists' heroic on-the-ground coverage of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, not to mention its bloggers' essential coverage from the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

Oh, wait. Did I say BoingBoing? I'm sorry, I got confused. I meant to say The New York Times. It's actually the Times that deploys journalists around the world at mind-boggling expense -- journalists who literally put their lives on the line every day -- to report from the front lines. It's actually the Times that had four of its journalists -- Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell, Tyler Hicks and Anthony Shadid -- abducted in Ajdabiya and held for six days. As the Times reported, the four were bound, beaten and essentially psychologically tortured -- repeatedly told they were about to be killed -- until Turkish diplomats intervened and helped secure their release.

By the way, the Committee to Protect Journalists has so far recorded "more than 60 attacks on the press since political unrest erupted in Libya last month," including two fatalities and 36 detentions.

BoingBoing, on the other hand, is the site whose co-editor Cory Doctorow was quoted everywhere over the past couple of weeks thanks to his post bashing the Times' new pay-wall, which fully kicks in this week after a brief test run in Canada. Doctorow wrote that the pay wall simply "won't work" for all sorts of reasons, and though he briefly attempted to strike a principled pose -- "I'm all for finding a business model for investigative journalism" -- he showed his true colors when he declared, "Yes, I was going to hate this pay wall no matter what the NYT did."

That's no surprise, given that Doctorow, an iconic figure in the blogosphere, has been outspoken about, for starters, the upside of file-sharing and the evils of digital-rights management. In fact, he's made a point of releasing his novels (he's an award-winning sci-fi author) free on the web. Then again, he also sells (for money!) his books through the likes of Barnes & Noble. Go figure. (Tip for defeating the pay wall -- aka the shoplifting detectors at the doors -- of your neighborhood B&N: Run like hell!)

In his pay-wall-bashing piece, Doctorow inevitably repeats the hoary line "news is a commodity." Only, it's not. Dependable, in-depth, big-picture journalism -- as opposed to the reactionary, piecemeal, out-of-context "aggregation" practiced by way too many bloggers -- is an increasingly rare and precious commodity. Last summer, a Pew Center study concluded that "blogs still heavily rely on the traditional press -- and primarily just a few outlets within that -- for their information. More than 99% of the stories linked to in blogs came from legacy outlets such as newspapers and broadcast networks. And just four -- the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post -- accounted for fully 80% of all links."

But we're all so busy playing a game of bloggy, social-media-enabled telephone that we're forgetting the primary sources -- the dwindling number of journalistic organizations left on the world stage that do actual, honest-to-God reporting -- of "news." Which makes knee-jerk bashing of attempts to enable reader support for such news-gathering seem not only knee-jerk petty, but profoundly myopic.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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