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For What It's Worth 

Top execs from just about every major U.S. newspaper chain met in Chicago late last month to discuss ways to get you to pay for news you get over the Internet. But you won't find news of that meeting or what came out of it in any of their newspapers or online sites.

Maybe they don't want you to know their plans. Or perhaps they no longer employed enough journalists to cover it.

As news execs try to come up with a price people will pay for news, many people insist they won't pay any price. Why, when they can get the information they think they need from blogs, social networking sites and other places for free?

The question news industry leaders ask is this: Can we place a value on information, and if so how much can we charge? But this might be a narrow way of looking at the situation. Consider that even as you refuse to pay money to get information, businesses and organizations will spend an awful lot of money to keep it from you. So the less you will spend to be informed, the less money they must spend to keep you uninformed. Your frugality saves them money.

This is the value of ignorance.

Stanford University Professor Robert Proctor studies ignorance as a science. He calls it agnotology, which, in a sign of our time, is a word you will find in Wikipedia but not Merriam-Webster. Agnotologists study culturally-induced ignorance. The academic discipline developed out of a desire to understand the publication of false or misleading scientific studies.

Back in 2003, Proctor told the New York Times that he worried about a new trend. Parties to liability lawsuits over tobacco and lead paint were paying historians to testify and these historians lacked ethical rules to guide them. Imagine the power of the historian. By testifying to a particular version of history to a jury, which will not double-check your facts, you can sway a jury verdict. Society is one big jury -- too busy and lazy to double-check facts that often come to us from paid experts.

Double-checking facts is the journalists' job. We leave it to them to give us the reality check we need. An example of this reality check came in April 2008, when New York Times columnist David Barstow reported how the Pentagon and defense contractors paid and directed more than 150 military experts who regularly appeared on television news shows. He described these paid consultants as a "media Trojan horse" that the Bush administration had built to "shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks." Barstow recently won the Pulitzer Prize for that story. Had he been laid off or taken a buyout, we still wouldn't know about it.

Arizona reporter Paul Giblin also won a Pulitzer this year, but was laid off several months before finding out. He was one of two reporters at the small East Valley Tribune who last year exposed how a local sheriff's enthusiasm for fighting illegal immigration was bankrupting his department. In Florida last July, the Sun-Sentinel newspaper laid off its investigations editor, Joe Demma. He led a team that uncovered massive fraud and mismanagement at the Federal Emergency Management Agency run by Bush appointee Michael Brown. Demma won three Pulitzers over an astounding career.

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, in her new collection of essays by various authors on censorship, writes that "a writer's life and work are not gifts to mankind; they are its necessity."

She wrote: "Unpersecuted, unjailed, unharassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world's resources. The alarm, the disquiet, writers raise is instructive because it is open and vulnerable, because if unpoliced it is threatening. Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow."

She and her fellow authors of the essays in Burn This Book worry about censorship and suppression of journalists, fiction writers and poets by totalitarian governments and religious regimes. But a more subtle method of suppression is taking place in this country now -- the purging of journalists under the argument that the public won't pay for what they write and advertisers will no longer subsidize them.

When I was a reporter at Internet startup, we joked that anytime a company bought ads on our site, it was our duty to investigate the company to prove to our readers we weren't bought. In November, shut the San Francisco office where I worked. The joke is on us now, because the corporations don't need to advertise to get business and when they pull their advertising, bye bye to the journalists who shine the harsh light of reality on them.

Failing to pay journalists won't silence all writers, but it will silence those who end up in marketing, public relations and academia. Most journalists don't have a cash cushion. When laid off they scramble for a job to support themselves and their families. That leaves no time for unpaid writing and reporting. And there is no need to censor, ban or spin what never gets written.

You read this column in a free publication. It doesn't cost you a penny.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism at Humboldt State University. She wound up in Humboldt County after a national financial magazine laid her off in 2003 during a previous round of journalism layoffs.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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