There’s been a bit of a growing chorus this week about how newspapers might be able to get readers to pay for their content. From what I can gather, Bill Keller of the New York Times jumpstarted this week’s episode of the ongoing discussion by hinting in an online forum that the Times was considering such a move. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad idea, but I do think that pricing will have a lot to do with whether it will work. Let’s say that I would probably not pay $50 a month, but I might pay $10 a month. I do wonder about what the limit is for the actual amount I would be willing to pay, but this is the New York Freaking Times we’re talking about.

Even so, I still question what kind of business model could be built by having readers pay what would not be particularly large amounts. For newspapers like the Times, whose readership has gone up immensely with the rise of the internet, they would almost certainly have more paid subscribers. But at too low a rate for subscription, the amounts of money coming in may not be enough of a help.

While the Internet has hastened the demise of print newspaper business model, it has been a boon for newspapers in terms of attracting readers to their product. Still, I think this is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. Small local newspapers may still thrive more in print, while larger papers are doing their best job at reaching readers online. If there is some hard information on this effect one way or the other I would be interested to see it.

NPR’s Morning Edition had a story yesterday about how some cities may lose their daily paper (this story used Hartford as an example, even though the Hartford Daily Courant does not appear to be considering folding). The reporter, David Folkenflik, used his report to consider what would be the civic effects of losing a city’s newspaper. Folkenflik is not the first reporter to address this issue, and I’ve been thinking more and more about Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities in response. Anderson’s book is about how nationalism and national ideologies are formed. One of his main arguments is that the press unites people in any kind of civic grouping (nations, cities, towns, etc) by giving them a common set of stories and ideas by which they can imagine themselves to be part of the same community. Hence the title of the book.

If a city loses its newspaper, then would this challenge the foundations of a community as described by Anderson? Yes and no. Yes, a community might not have one place where people get information about the community. This would mean that people develop their own overlapping sets of interests, news sources, and communities. A community is not then geographic but I don’t Anderson would say a community necessarily is anyway. For him, a community is most closely defined by ideology, not geography. Still, I think a sense of community would still exist under this scenario. It is more a cloud of communities than one easily defined community. For instance, previously you could say, “Oh, I’m from Washington, DC, I read the Washington Post everyday and I discuss the politics I read there with the people I talk to every day. I feel a connection to what goes on in the Capitol not because I ever go there, but because I read about it and talk about it and my community has the same base of knowledge about it.” Now we more likely would say, “Oh I read a lot of Web sites about politics. Yeah, we both read FiveThirtyEight, but I read Foreign Policy’s Cable blog about the foreign policy establishment and you read Politico’s Capitol Hill gossip blog instead. We are both connected to the Washington community as created by the media, but we are part of other distinct communities as well.”

I would be interested if people have some ideas to share. How much do you think you would pay for the New York Times online? Are there some news sources you absolutely wouldn’t be willing to pay for if the price was right? How does this “community cloud” idea sound to you?

In my mind Nat Hentoff was one of the quintessential late 60s / early 70s music critics. He had a great Playboy interview with Bob Dylan in 1966 and wrote liner notes for a ton of jazz albums. A lot of the good cool jazz through free jazz was somehow part of Hentoff’s critical domain. So it was surprising to hear that a) he was still writing for the Village Voice (I’m sorry I’ve missed so much of what’s been done since those glory days) and b) that he just got laid off this past week. Clearly, the 83-year-old journalist was not too happy about the news:

I’m 83 and a half. You’d think they’d have let me go silently.

Well obviously Hentoff isn’t the only one in this position even if his name and prestige — and seemingly difficult temperament — make his case a bit unique. Buyouts are the name of the media industry game these days and his case points to some questions about who’s feeling the brunt of the ax.

I think that in this case at least part of the Voice’s rationale was that this was a guy with few years left in his career, probably commanding an at least slightly outsized salary given his prominence, and a waning lack of emphasis on traditional music criticism in the wake of newer platforms on the internet. With these buyouts, we lose expertise (bad), namebrand journalistic power (sometimes a good thing, occasionally a bad thing), and print-based music/arts criticism (probably a wash to irrelevant in the big picture).

In an interview with NPR that aired yesterday Hentoff encouraged young journalists to specialize early, which was not something that appeared to be the goal from the outset of many journalists of Hentoff’s vintage. One should not cultivate oneself to be a generalist. While I like having a wide range of interests, I can see the value of expertise in a field. I think health and science professionals are one among many groups that feel that specialized writing about their areas of study will more adequately explain their relatively opaque fields. I think many would agree that more knowledgeable economics writers during the Clinton and Bush years may have helped thwart some of the more egregious policies of those last two presidents responsible for many of our problems now. Specialization is also just important to a journalism world that is, in at least some ways, democratizing. Blogs and other news-related websites allow new types of reporters and writers to develop innovative platforms that require each writer to develop some kind of niche with which to separate from the ever-growing pack.

At the same time, Hentoff ends the interview with a second piece of advice. That young journalists should know the roots of the cultures, societies, and other sources of the stories they follow. This attitude requires that journalists have one hand in the specialist pot while still cultivating an overall generalist attitude. Some malign journalists as secondary writers just spewing out what they are fed, a charge true across the board in the TV world, and almost always so in the traditional print world as well when it comes to DC-based political reporting. This seems like a time where some could reach great new heights, and not just compared to the drivel we’ve consumed lately from many establishment types. For new journalists, the changing media landscape not only presents opportunities for innovation in journalistic content and delivery, but also in the overall approach to the work. We can and must specialize to a degree perhaps not required in a previous age, but we can combine this knowledge with the lessons of previous generations in the field on how to find the bigger picture that often escapes specialists in academia, an oft-cloistered literary world and elsewhere.