Newspapers are not done experimenting with paywalls. This is unfortunate, because valuable energy is wasted on figuring out how to charge for content rather than producing content readers will want to pay for.
Newer generations of readers are not accustomed to paying for the news — a trend introduced not by social media or the Internet, but by television and the 24-hour news cycle. Before people shared news items on Facebook, they shared newspapers and magazines. Whatever people are willing to pay to get the news is very little, and well below the mark that many newspapers set for their paywalls. Yet people do splurge on other things, including devices like tablets that deliver the news, among other things. People will pay for gonzo.
I draw inspiration from the style of journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson, but I’m not suggesting that journalists should imitate him — or that people are willing to pay for that form of journalism. Thompson’s work was specific to an era and right for that era. Transplanting that ethos to our own era would be desperate, and being out of tune with your own era is a tragedy.
I’m more interested in the idea of gonzo as a metaphor — for what it signifies in rethinking the meaning of journalism. To me, gonzo means doing the opposite to what stands for the norm in a given era. So if the norm suggests an obsession with instantaneity, scoops, being the first to report something, then gonzo would mean slow news, context, and being the last to tell a story — but possibly the one to tell the most interesting and thoughtful story.
But the gonzo mentality also provides a way for reconciling the temporal and other incompatibilities introduced by online platforms for news storytelling that make it difficult for journalists to be the first and only ones broadcasting a story. The gonzo approach emphasizes getting to accuracy through personal experience, emotion, sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and many of the other traits that characterize collaborative news storytelling on a platform like Twitter. It’s a mistake to characterize gonzo as emotional and thus erratic: On the contrary, the approach is about emotion applied carefully — curated emotion, emotion and reason working together, objectivity and subjectivity as parallel processes and not polar opposites. In the past few years, a few news outlets have taken such steps, with many missteps in the process but also with a lot of merit and promise. So here’s to more of that!
Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois-Chicago.