The Help Desk: I don't buy it

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

Whenever a local news organization fucks up — and I mean really fucks up, like giving a platform to Nazis — people talk about boycotting that organization. It makes sense: we unfortunately live in late capitalism, so boycotting is possibly the greatest power that we have.

But as soon as people discuss boycotting a media org, I see a bunch of reporters step forward on Twitter and Facebook to say that boycotting is a bad idea, since news organizations are on such shaky financial ground. But of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? I know that journalists are underpaid and that the field is shrinking. But on the other hand, I don’t know if I want to live in a world where there are no repercussions for bad journalism.

Do you think that boycotting a news organization is ever warranted?


Dear Sam,

Yes, I think boycotts can be warranted. I wish people would boycott Fox news but realistically, we will have to wait for old age and hurricanes to work their magic on that audience. But in order for a boycott to be effective, it has to actually hurt their business model, and that is hard to do when the model is already broken.

Let me ask you: How many newspapers and magazines do you actually subscribe to versus how many articles do you read online, for free?

A majority of people ages 18-49 now get most of their news online. Another study shows that a little over half of people actually pay for it. Journalism is suffering — and bad journalism is flourishing — in part because of this. We've lost years of institutional knowledge as career journalists retire or leave their field for PR jobs that offer humane things like decent pay, health insurance and days off.

Meanwhile, many readers have come to expect a high-quality product on a 24-hour cycle for free. For free. It's completely fucked.

Should quality be better? Yes. And it was, when more people payed for their media. I loved it when Seattle was a two-newspaper town. I loved reading two different takes on the same city council meeting or whatever. I loved having many diverse, well-research viewpoints to better inform my own. But for quality to improve, people have to actually pony up and pay for it.

Without that mechanism, it's like boycotting the zoo and expecting the tigers to give half a silly fuck. Your absence will have no meaningful effect on their lives. They will still be trapped in their cages, pacing and dreaming of death.