In response to the buzz over Nate Thayer’s post last week on The Atlantic not being willing to actually pay for online content (at least from freelancers), Ezra Klein offers a bit of a brief for the defense–or at least an explanation of why it’s easy for publications to get content without paying for it. It’s all a matter of institutional subsides that used to go through journalists now going directly to publishers:

[B]ehind this debate lurks an uncomfortable fact: The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free.

Call it the revenge of our sources. For a very long time, we got them to work for nothing more than exposure — and sometimes, we didn’t even give them that. Now they’re getting more and more of us to do it.

There’s no question that a lot of folk who are crucially under-cutting the market for political content these days have day-jobs that make writing for free–without or without the active encouragement of their employers–feasible. Ezra’s correct that some of them–think-tankers, academics, former politicians, etc.–used to be “sources” (named or unnamed) and now have their own by-lines thanks to the explosion of outlets, especially online. In that sense, journalists complaining about being undercut have essentially lost their power to command these institutional subsidies.

Working for exposure has long been a crucial element of how professional journalists made their money. It’s just that before, we were the ones profiting off of that work, at least in part, and now, we’re often not.

Now Ezra’s take on this treats “content” as a commodity that is possessed by the people who used to have to respect a journalistic oligopoly on mass-audience publication, and now don’t. After all, he says, “anybody can write.” So in a freer market for content, those enjoying day-job subsidies are really just cutting out the middle-folk, particularly when you consider that their day-job perches are what make them “experts” to begin with, providing them not only with credentials but of sources of their own, which no longer have to be shared with journalists.

The problem with the “commodity” approach is that there is good writing (which not just “anybody” can do), and there is also analysis, which places the “facts” that sources provide into an intelligible context. Not all of these subsidized former sources who are now content providers are that good at analysis, and many others have an analytical framework dictated by their day-job employers, which is a nice way of saying they are performing advocacy work at best and lobbying or “spin” at worst.

Maybe this all comes out in wash in the vast marketplace of words, but treating political journalism as just the gathering and writing of “facts” from “sources” misses an awful lot of what the better journalists–and ironically, Ezra Klein is a very good example of this–actually do.

In a piece on the declining glamor of the White House press corps by Buzzfeed’s Evan McMorris-Santoro (didn’t know he had left TPM!), the New York Times‘ Peter Bakers is quoted as making the crucial point:

[W]hile the most common journalistic criticism of White House reporters is that they serve as “stenographers” for the administration — dutifully writing stories about whatever the press secretary chooses to talk about — Baker said the quality of coverage is more a function of the journalist than the building.

“There’s a myth that all we do is take leaks on a silver platter. So the challenge is to be creative not just in uncovering information the press office doesn’t want to give out, but also in taking the information that is available and writing about it in a way that goes deeper below the surface and gives readers a better, sharper analysis of what’s really going on,” Baker said. “It’s only stenography if you choose it to be.”

Unfortunately, a lot of journalists are making that “choice,” and the answer to that particular problem isn’t to churn out a vast new class of shoe-leather who-what-why-when journalists (though they are valuable in their own right) or just to directly publish those who “dictate” the stenography. For all the content, smart journalism that explains as well as reports (or advocates or spins) still isn’t in over-abundant supply, and publishers just looking for the cheapest or more plentiful or most attention-grabbing words aren’t helping.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.