Timidity Makes For Lousy Journalism.

I don’t know too much about Dave Eggers.  I like McSweeneys.  I’ve never read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  I liked Where the Wild Things Are.  But this answer from a recent interview of his with the Onion A.V. Club – about the newest edition of McSweeneys, which is a mock-newspaper called the San Francisco Panorama - really made me angry:

To me, the print business model is so simple, where readers pay a dollar for all the content within, and that supports the enterprise. The web model is just so much more complicated, and involves this third party of advertisers, and all these other sources of revenue that are sort of provisional, but haven’t been proven yet. We’ve lost that very simple transaction that’s so pure, where a reader can say, “I support what you’re doing, here’s my dollar. I know that you guys are gonna be watchdogs or keep the government accountable, so here’s my 50-cent contribution each day.” It’s just so tidy, and I think so inspiring.

The idea that newspapers have heretofore been making money solely on circulation and incidental purchases – without the silly gimmick of advertisers, which are some newfangled internet thing – is insane.  Newspapers have always made the vast majority of their money from advertising, both retail and classified – indeed, my hometown paper is only still afloat because of arcane rules requiring things like name changes to be printed in a public forum.  Suggesting that the half-dollar sale price was what kept newspapers afloat is like saying that I support the Washington Post’s website when I pay my cable bill every month.

This is such a fundamental point, and one so key to understanding what’s happening in the journalistic world today, that I simply can’t believe that Eggers isn’t aware of it.  So I’m forced to conclude that Eggers was simply being disingenuous in order to score a cheap rhetorical point.  Which is bad enough.  But to make matters worse, instead of asking Eggers to explain what the hell he’s talking about – the interviewer just moved on to the next question!

This is my problem with most interviews I read: the complete disinclination of the interviewer to dynamically respond to the subject’s answers.  I’m not saying every interview has to be like Frost/Nixon, but at the same time, there needs to be some recognition that an interview is not an invitation for the subject to blather blithely on without being asked to explain themselves when they say things that are obviously false. This kind of answer doesn’t just ruin Egger’s credibility on newspaper business models – it calls into question whether Eggers believes anything that he says in the whole interview, and makes the whole thing an exercise in futility.