I like Virginia Postrel‘s take on the recent controversy over at Forbes.com. A popular author, Bill Frezza, published a controversial column on that website – advising university fraternities to beware of female students who show up at their parties drunk – and was fired. Comments Postrel:
What has drawn little comment is the business model that produced a journalistic fiasco. Forbes.com (not to be confused with the print magazine) is a publication that acts like a platform. It hires columnists, gives them a general turf, tells them to write and post pieces, and pays them by how much traffic they attract. Unlike a traditional publication, it doesn’t spend money on having editors review the topics or articles beforehand.
In the traditional model, Frezza’s article either would have had the backing of the publication–which would have stood up for it–or it would have never seen the light of day. If the argument seemed beyond the pale, an editor would have said, “No thanks. What else do you have?” There would have been no public blowup and no firing. One way or another Forbes.com would have taken responsibility. (As anyone who reads Forbes.com knows, its lack of editorial oversight extends to basics of proofreading.) Forbes.com’s business model has been successful in a tough environment, but it presents editorial perils.
Under the new model, columnists have to guess what readers will find interesting and they also have to guess what editors will find a firing offense. They are expected to internalize vaguely defined standards and self-censor accordingly.
Other, very bad problems with this model: (1) Authors are financially punished for writing stories that take a long time to report or that are important-but-boring; (2) livid, invidious opinion is likely to generate more “clicks” than researched journalism; (3) writers must now aim to please rather than to inform their readers.
Back in the day, Sports sections, for example, subsidized important-but-boring stories about school-board meetings and treaty negotiations among Asian nations. No more, alas.
Reposted from basil.CA