AUGUST 25, 2009 5:10AM

We must kill press freedom to save it

Rate: 23 Flag

I spent a good part of the weekend avoiding this Los Angeles Times column by Tim Rutten headlined "Setting the price of a free press."

I have my blood pressure to think about. Here's the subhead: "If the 1st Amendment is to mean anything, Congress has to suspend antitrust rules for the newspaper industry so publishers can determine as a group how much to charge for online content."

It's been making the Twitter rounds in Future of Journalism nerdland because it's another piece in a major daily encouraging Congress to suspend antitrust laws so that newspapers can form a cartel and collude on pricing.

Usually the argument is that newspapers must be saved because they're important civic institutions and their reporters play a vital watchdog role in society. Rutten's innovation is to argue that without newspapers the First Amendment would be meaningless. He also separates from the pack by freely using the word "collude."

I'm going to borrow a format from the late, lamented Fire Joe Morgan because it's the closest I can come to forming a coherent argument while foaming at the mouth.

I don't want to be accused of stealing content so I'm only going to copy parts of Rutten's piece. I also don't want to be accused of quoting him out of context, so I'll wait here while you go read the whole thing. That link again: Here. By Tim Rutten in the L.A. Times. OK? Here we go.

[Rupert Murdoch] understands that what's required for serious -- which is to say expensive-to-produce -- journalism to survive is that all the quality English-language papers and news sites agree to charge for Web access and then mercilessly sue anyone who makes more than fair use of their work without paying a fee.

The business plan, then, is to "mercilessly sue" the people who are giving your customers, former customers and potential customers what they want. And, in this confusing new-media world, many of the people you will be mercilessly suing will be your customers, former customers and potential customers. Not only is that the plan, it's the only possible plan. It's required. Because it's worked so well for all those other industries that have done it.

American papers had combined revenues of $34.7 billion from the advertising in their print editions last year and just $3.1 billion in advertising from their online sites, despite the fact that, on average, 67.3 million people visited them each month.

My dad, who is not a journalist, pointed something out about sports reporting when I was a kid. He said that newspaper writers think that how things are going now is how things are always going to go. If the local nine has won six straight, you get stories filled with optimism and dissections of all the reasons the team is so great. Let them lose the next three and the papers will be filled with stories about the flaws of the team -- same exact bunch of guys -- and how steps must be taken before it's too late. Written by the same writers, of course.

Two-year-olds are the same way. Try explaining to a 2-year-old that you're taking something away, but you're going to give it back in a few minutes.

And Rutten suffers from the same problem. Because newspapers have higher revenues than their online sites, that will always be the case. It's not possible for online revenue to catch up to print revenue. And advertising revenue? It's the only important revenue source -- and therefore it always will be.

Notice also that Rutten only talks about revenue from newspaper sites, as though that were the whole Web. In fact, that's a subset of the Web that has been notable for its incompetence and the indifference and cluelessness of its owners.

Congress needs to move quickly to grant the newspaper industry at least a temporary exemption from antitrust and price-fixing laws so that publishers and proprietors can, in essence, collude for survival. The question that naturally arises is why the government should have any interest in supporting newspapers -- unhealthy or otherwise.

Funny you should mention that. I was gonna say.

In fact, U.S. authorities have used their regulatory powers to support a free press -- whose foundations were and remain newspapers -- since the Colonial era.

Next we get a history lesson about colonial deputy postmaster Ben Franklin setting cheap or free postal rates for newspapers, a policy that survived independence.

That was crucial to the free flow of information because it allowed the foreign and financial news that aggregated in the port cities to pass uninhibited to the printer/publishers of inland papers, while events in the hinterland were transmitted back to the major cities.

What Rutten's doing here is confusing newspapers with communication. In Ben Franklin's day -- and, in nothing new under the sun news, let's not forget the conflict of interest printer/publisher turned policy-maker Franklin had going -- that was largely true. So the cheap postal rates fostered the free flow of information. Today, newspapers are a fraction of communication.

Even Rutten doesn't try to claim explicitly that newspapers are the entirety of a free press. He uses mushy language to say that newspapers are the "foundations" of a free press, then argues as if he'd made the point that newspapers are the free press.

What Rutten is arguing for here would do exactly the opposite of what he says it would do, which is a neat rhetorical trick. It would hinder the free flow of information. If you want to hinder the free flow of information for business reasons, say so. Don't feed us a line of bull about how you're standing up for freedom.

More important, if Congress acts as it should, it will do so not on behalf of newspapers but for their readers.

Rutten! It's like you can't even hear me! What did I just say?

The press, after all, does not assert 1st Amendment protections on its own behalf but as the custodian of such protections on behalf of the American people.

Oh, on behalf of the people. So it's just a happy coincidence that Congress lifting antitrust laws for newspapers would pull newspapers' crispy butts out of the fire. It's not about that. It's about the people.

Have you met the people, Tim? I hear they're lovely once you get to know them. They're the ones who have been saying for years, with their actions, "If you charge us for online news, we will abandon you. We do not support newspapers or anyone else charging for online news except for news that's highly specialized. We have signaled this consensus by not paying for general news in huge numbers. What we're saying here, Tim, is: You are not seeking government protections on our behalf. We are against what you are trying to do. Also, we like dogs. Not really relevant here, but we, the people, just freakin' love dogs."

The framers wisely judged that a healthy democratic government required people informed by a free press, acting according to the dictates of their own consciences, speaking their minds without inhibition in the free associations of their choosing.

And you agree, unless they don't choose your product.

If the unlooked-for consequences of technical innovation somehow threatened religious freedom -- which is to say, liberty of conscience -- or inhibited free speech or intimidated people from assembling, there's no doubt Congress would act expeditiously.

Right! Like, for example, if someone tried to inhibit the free flow of information to protect their own business interests, Congress ought to leap into the fray, if necessary, to make sure it doesn't happen.

So it now should on behalf of a free press.

So far, it is. By not listening to you and other newspaper guys posing as free-speech advocates by demanding the right to shut up other publishers.

Newspaper proprietors with as serious an interest in their readers' interest as their own bottom lines ought to follow Murdoch's unlikely lead into a consortium of pay-to-view news websites or adopt one of the other proposed models as quickly as practical.

Newspaper proprietors with a serious interest in their readers' interest as well as their own bottom lines ought to listen to their readers -- that is, their customers, former customers and potential customers -- instead of threatening to "mercilessly sue" them, or anyone who gives them what they want.

Fixed that for you, Tim.

Unless our lawmakers empower the newspaper industry to act on its readers' behalf, it's only a matter of time until there are too few serious sources of quality -- or "premium" -- journalism to guarantee the reality of the free press on which all the 1st Amendment's indispensable liberties depend.

This is true only if you operate under two assumptions, both false. The first is that only newspapers can provide quality, or "premium" journalism. The second is that the way things are today is the way they will always be.


- - - - -

Reading assignment for next time: "High-quality journalism isn't 'free'" by Benjamin J. Marrison of the Columbus Dispatch.

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Great points. I'll add a link from my blog post (although this comment won't post if I include a link here - so you'll probably never know.)

I particularly like your Dad's thought about sports writers who "think that how things are going now is how things are always going to go."

Katherine Warman Kern
to find your link in my blog, try searching google for comradity and you'll find my blog. Go to Comradity Comments Index and the relevant post is entitled "What should the government do to help the press?"
Yes, exempting mainline newspapers from antitrust laws so that they can protect their financial bacon is no way to go. I find it very hard to sympathize with contemporary Hearsts and Pulitzers, and all the folderol about "premium journalism" (think of what fills most newspaper pages) is absurd.

And yet. It would be nice to be paid for the journalistic writing I'm doing online. I'm not worried about the quality of "free" journalism; the many town hall blogs that are evolving seem to be adding to the neighborhood news quotient rather than causing anomie.

And yet. It does cost money to do full-length, investigative feature reporting. Even Ida Tarbell, who was fairly obsessed with getting John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th century, was getting paid by McClure's magazine.

We writers need some help here. But ditching antitrust laws--worse, being beholden to government interests that help unravel said laws and create news monopolies--is antithetical to good investigative reporting. Unless you're a premium (gold-plated) reporter, I guess.
American papers had combined revenues of $34.7 billion from the advertising in their print editions last year and just $3.1 billion in advertising from their online sites, despite the fact that, on average, 67.3 million people visited them each month.

This highlights a problem (which others have probably written about more extensively, but which I have some small personal experience with). The problem is this: No one can figure out how to pay for anything besides running ads. Ads in magazines and newspapers have survived because no one can be sure how well they're working. Ads online can be tracked quite closely and what we've seen there is advertising doesn't actually work. Therefore paper ads sell for enough money to support large scale endeavors -- magazines, newspapers -- while online ads sell for enough money to support a small coffee habit, if you don't go to Starbucks.

I've been on the Web putting up content of one kind or another since 1993. At the beginning no one worried about how to make it pay but it rapidly became clear that we content providers would like to get paid for what we were doing. It became clear somewhat later that there was simply no way we were going to get paid, especially not in relation to the numbers of viewers we were getting.

We've all tried subscriptions and ads but basically the only really sustainable model for paying for online content is subsidy: A day job, government grants, foundations, and so forth. Mostly day jobs. Because the consumers have spoken: We want -- expect and demand -- online content to be free. What we haven't figured out is that someone always pays. Either Coca-Cola runs ads and you pay more for your Coke, or you pay your subscription, or you pay your taxes and they get filtered down to some non-profit or other.

This problem hasn't been solved yet and it's been fifteen years. And neither Tim Rutten shouting that we all need to start paying pronto or King Kaufman's shouting that that's clearly insane will solve it any time soon.
Remember when wire aggregators and special-interest news first hit the Internet, back around 1990 or so when they started appearing as automated Usenet feeds?

Online news is 20 years old. During that entire period, there has been nothing preventing the traditional press from embracing new media and finding new ways to balance the same old journalism/business dichotomy with which they've always wrestled. In fact you'd think that news people would regard it as the very essence of their profession to get involved as early and often as possible with new modes of communication and information exchange.

Instead the traditional press sleepwalked (sleptwalked?) through two decades, spending what creative energy it had on figuring out new ways to consolidate and monopolize rather than to, you know, publish.

Today the press, shocked to discover gambling at Rick's, acts as if the challenges of the internet age emerged fully formed out of the mist sometime in the last few years. And of course their thinking still goes no further than finding some new way to monopolize their way out of the problem.

As famous philosopher of journalism Yoda once said, "That is why you fail."
Double-speak, indeed. Remember the early 70s and "underground" newspapers? THAT was journalism that had something to do with the real world as opposed to maintaining the status quo at all costs. Newspapers offer the corporate lies du jour. News via the Internet provide a more visceral and truthful reporting of events. I can see where the Internet would cut into newspaper ad space sales. But to portray newspapers as any kind of bastion of democracy is laughable given the events of the past eight or nine years, from the appointment of Dubya to the election of Obama and his subsequent lemonhood.
I am so glad to see voices like Rutten's finally coming to an obvious and long-overdue conclusion.

Yes, it's silly to suggest that newspapers are the ONLY form of journalism, but I don't think that's what he's really arguing. He's saying it's a crucial component of journalism in our current system, and there's nothing on the horizon to replace it, so we'll be screwed without it.

He's right.

You can try to box him in on individual points all you want, but big picture, that point is solid, and most of the people familiar with the business agree with it.

Yes, the corporations pushing this are big corps and have a vested interest too, and are not doing it just for the public good. But it's a logical fallacy to suggest that because they have a vested interest, they can't also share the public interest. Here, the two coincide.

I sure hope Congress acts. What has taken so long for the cries asking them?

The only question I have is whether it's ten years too late, and whether it can actually work.
Great post. I think all this will become moot once John Varley's vision comes true, through the Kindle or one of its clones, extant or yet to be launched, and everyone has their own "plate", their own reader, thereby subscribing to the content they prefer. (this will also stop the nonsense of trying to consume web content on a cell phone screen.

Martha is right, after all - quality investigative reporting costs money. You gotta pay the reporter for his work days and expenses. Ain't no way around it. You also gotta pay for the editorial staff that takes the reporter's work and prepares it for consumption. Not even talking about your necessary legal and admin. department etc.

Once the medium is widespread enough, the problem will be obviated. Print (as in hardcopy) is just a medium, and a very costly one at that - materials, production and distribution. Eliminating it will reduce costs across the board.

And having said that, a little sour grapes kvetch - You know I love your writing, King, but is it really fair to have your item on the mothership take up the OS promotional spot? I mean, when it happens with David Sirota (another wonderful writer and journalist) it's kinda pushing it, cause his stuff also appears (or used to) on the mothership itself. But you're a senior Salon writer and editor. This should have gone up on the mothership in red, leaving the once weekly blue spot to promote one of us not-yet-broken-through schlubs (and I'm not talking about myself in this instance, since I don't have any fresh posts that woulda contended for the honor this week). Just my opinion.
Rutten's just another established figure scared of losing his perceived power and prestige due to a bunch of "illegitimate" newcomers from a different medium. Sort of reminds me of Lou Dobbs and his ilk screaming about doing whatever needs to be done to stop those illegal immigrants from ruining the country.
Wow! He actually hold Murdoch up as an example here. Amazing. Yeah, there's such great investigative reporting coming out of Fox News and the NY Post. Murdoch should be an example of why we can't allow news media to collude. In fact, Murdoch's empire is the best argument I know in favor of breaking up the media conglomerates AND reinstating the much-vaunted Fairness Doctrine.
Isn't is a paradigm shift for newspaper owners to be remotely interested in their readers. Are publishers primarily interested in their advertisers?
"This is true only if you operate under two assumptions, both false. The first is that only newspapers can provide quality, or "premium" journalism. The second is that the way things are today is the way they will always be."

On the first point, you're right, but there's also a lot of crap masquerading as premium. You work for Slate, which is good, but perhaps you've been breathing your rarified air for too long; you might not understand that there are other bad bloggers out there purporting to be good bloggers. There should be a measure by which people can trust what they read online and newspapers offer that. And it's THEIR news, and I think most people agree that stealing is bad.

One the second point, your dad is also right. My mother used to say, "and this too shall pass," but it won't pass without forward trajectory, and so I think the effort being put forth by Ruttan shouldn't be thrown out wholesale without looking at the real ramifications. Maybe the anti-trust laws need tweaking. I don't know, I'm not a lawyer. But you're using the word "collude" like the anti-health care nuts are using "death panels" — as a scare tactic.

It might not be as scary as it sounds, but we should at least be allowed to examine the potential without getting yelled at.
Lynne - a quibble and a material disagreement.

First, King of course works for Salon, not Slate.

Second, there is no similarity between King's proper use of "collude" and the false "death panels" meme. It is NOT a scare tactic. Anti-trust was invented specifically to prevent what this LAT dude is suggesting. Furthermore, there is no "scaring" here because the point is we're already not buying the product. What's the scare? Not buy it more?

If you allow competitors in an industry to set the prices between them - that's the dictionary definition of "collusion". That's what the word actually means. It's not a scare tactic to point that out.
Dammit, King! If you keep up with this thoughtful and witty writing you threaten to get me interested in a topic I hadn't really cared that much about before. That darn Patrick Smith has me all thinky about the airline industry. Next think you know I'll be all talky with my friends about journalism.

It is great to see your thoughts on journalism extend beyond Coin Aficionado and I've been happy to see you in type again recently. Collusion won't do for journalism what more folks like yourself can do; make readers contemplate a topic they really didn't care about before.

Many thanks.
I do find it mildly amusing that a) I read this article for free and b) King can't reply to the comments because of his day job. I guess that makes my point. Feel free to send me money in place of accolades.
Two notes:

o) I find it absolutely hilarious--in a grim kind of way--that the poll associated with Rutten's article gives you two choices to select from: "Should newspapers charge for contents on the internet? 1) Yes, so they can stay in business. 2) No, all content on the Internet should be free." Talk about your textbook definition of "false dichotomy."

o) One of the links off of Rutten's screen is to an LA Times article on the recent prevalence of the number 9 in film titles (,0,921060.story). It's a reasonably-amusing article, I guess, but it's no more or less interesting than any 10 blog posts that I can find here on Open Salon, and it certainly not worthy of suspending anti-trust laws to support. Should we be charged for opinion content and fluff that we can easily get somewhere else, Mr. Rutten?
You're not killing freedom of the press if you say that readers have to pay for the content.

And one of Murdoch's properties, the Wall Street Journal, has been doing it right for a long time. They give you access to some stuff for free. If you want more, you've got to pay. It's not that expensive. It's only $60 a year for the online edition.

I wouldn't be against people across the industry setting a consistent rate for access to individual articles (say a buck or so) or access to their entire sites. I'd be fine with that.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The question to be answered is what is the definition of "the press".

Over time courts have had to make rulings that interpret the Constitution. The press eant one thing at the time of the Constitution and evolved over time. Now, in the Internet era, what constitutes the press is nebulous because people who act as reporters may not work for a traditional news organization nor even get directly paid for their work.

So the question that arises is what is the specific definition of the press?
I could never figure out how 'premium' and 'quality' were decided, anyhow. All journalism, print and television, is editorial. Just the facts? Seriously? The last television news I watched that gave some impression that it tried to stay out of too much editorial was News Overnight with Linda Ellerbee.

What we call 'good journalism' is what we agree with. If we agree with the editorial, then we think it's first class.

And so it goes.
King, you epic-fail to consider here that--

1) Clearly, newspapers are too big to fail...except those that have, well, already failed.
2) Most of us very much lament living in our own era, and not Ben Franklin's. I mean, fuck penicillin. Gimme a newspaper!
3) Government MUST intervene here, or there will be no free press...only Wordpress, which

I find the greatest thing about this whole Future of Journalism debate is that it shows just how many self-important, lame-brains are still employed in journalism.
journalism is obsolete. get over it, technology has sent it to the history books, with swordsmiths and geomancers.

this is a good thing. war, politics, reporting, and sex should all be done by enthusiastic amateurs.
Murdock is an old greedy man....can't he have a heart attack and drop dead.
Some thoughts from a life-long news hound and still-employed newspaper reporter:

As Martha Nichols points out, investigative journalism costs money. So does routine, day-to-day journalism. Reporters get paid for doing a certain job; some do it well, some don't. But quality, believe it or not, is a constant standard at the newspaper I work for. And I know (even though my paper's owned by Murdoch) mine isn't the only paper that turns out the best "product" possible every day.

I put that word in quotes because I don't do product. That's an industry term. I write stories for a living. I gather information from sources friendly and otherwise, cajole or complain my way into facts and fallacies, and I try to recognize the difference. I listen to and try to capture for readers (be they plain citizens or advertisers, politicians or princes) the pain and pleasures of living in a particular community at a particular time. My name goes on everything I write, along with my e-mail address. I'm listed in the phone book. If I get it wrong -- a name misspelled, a tax rate wrongly computed, I'm mortified for days and I stand corrected in the next day's edition. I rarely hear my stuff praised, more often see it criticized. It's my job and I do it as well as I can. And for that, I get paid. I don't get paid a lot, but I make a living. And I'm just a single reporter, with dozens of colleagues, editors, and support staff making it all possible.

If I didn't get paid, I wouldn't be able to do write or report much of anything worth publishing or posting. A corporation stands behind me, making it possible for me to write stories. It's not a noble corporation. No corporation is. But it pays the mortgage (just barely) and I do the job and the stories get told -- in print and online, good news and bad.

Rutten's proposal strikes me as dicey. It has the taste of panic and looks backwards for its questionable comforts. If he sounds desperate -- and I think he does -- I'm glad he's at least standing up for newspapers, however benighted his proposal may be. In fact, I would say that rather than smugly predicting newspapers' demise, the presumptive "alternatives" to newspapers could use a dose of desperation as well.

The country's cadres of "citizen journalists" have yet to produce anything comparable to what I've outlined above. Blogging has not been able to professionalize itself to any appreciable extent. It hasn't attracted enough big money to staff and maintain reliable local news outlets that can regularly match or surpass what local dailies or weeklies do every day. The various "new media" won't amount to much at the local level (which is where most readers live and breathe) until and unless they can find a way to pay salaries for people willing to make the effort to inform and entertain readers. Just as newspapers are adapting to and using the Internet, the "citizen journalists" I keep hearing about need to find ways to make their "product" something more by attracting big money investors and adopting professional standards of fairness, disinterested inquiry and finding ways to present both the facts of the matter and as well as the heart of that matter.

For all their well-known faults, newspapers still do this better than anybody. After years of ignoring the Internet, I see newspapers adapting to meet readers' needs and expectations, and, ultimately, making more adventurous and innovative changes, spurred by need and greed. I'm betting that when the paywalls start dropping, people will be willing to pay for careful, professional online reporting and writing, just as they have long been willing to pay for the morning paper.
Jeremiah, great post. I do agree with a lot of what you say.

I still subscribe to the Arizona Republic. However the paper has gone downhill, relying on AP and others for much of the content. The Valley & State section is the only reason I haven't left, simply because that is my best available source of local news. But, that said, I've thought about dropping my subscription because the value that the paper has represented is dropping.

I would consider an electronic copy of the paper at a reduced subscription price, but I suspect that their advertisers wouldn't be happy with electronic distribution.

The other issue that citizen reporters and bloggers lack is press credentialing. There are simply some stories that a citizen reporter/blogger doesn't have access to without a press badge. That also will need to be addressed in the future and I am not sure how it will be resolved, especially if the newspapers continue to close and there are less options for obtaining news.

Thanks for your post.
Jeremiah says:
The country's cadres of "citizen journalists" have yet to produce anything comparable to what I've outlined above. Blogging has not been able to professionalize itself to any appreciable extent.

Great comment, Jeremiah. You make a lot of good points.

But I'm going to bring up the obvious Internet-centric problem with what you wrote: "comparable to what I've outlined above". That's a definition of journalism, not the definition of journalism. Your assumption is that a healthy free press informing the public on issues important to them must take the form of a centralized organization with copyeditors, proofreaders, fact checkers, power to issue press badges, and so on. Your proof of the need for newspapers is that blogs haven't managed to do this. Well, of course not.

But that doesn't mean newspapers can't be replaced by blogs anyway. Wikipedia is something of a good example: When I first saw Wikipedia I didn't understand the big deal. An encyclopedia that anyone can edit? What good is that?

But it turns out it's very good in a lot of ways. Because anyone can edit it, falsehoods and rumors don't survive long -- any and every subject out there has experts who care about it, and some of those experts care enough to make sure Wikipedia entries are correct.

The same could be said about local news. Who knows better about local news, a reporter sniffing around or the people actually living the news?

There's a trade-off, naturally. Wikipedia's had some high-profile disasters (listed on Salon yesterday, for example). And they're moving to a more hierarchical system there, getting closer to what we'd expect from a "real" encyclopedia.

But Wikipedia has huge advantages over a paper encyclopedia. My copy of Grolier's was never very useful when I wanted to know about the Rolling Stones, for example. Or Avril Lavigne, for that matter. Or more serious current events, like the controversy over gender testing in the Olympics. Or, heck, even basic knowledge, like the borders of neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

The depth and detail available on Wikipedia dwarfs free access to even the best-stocked library in the world. And it's searchable!

Why can't a similar model work for local news? If there's anything we've learned over the past fifty years, it's that nothing stays hidden for long. Investigative reporting is great and all, but it's just one way of getting at the truth. Why couldn't it be replaced?

I'm playing devil's advocate here to some extent. Whenever writing up stuff like this it's de rigeur to point out that newspapers fill an important niche and aren't going away and investigative reporting is vitally important in our daily lives and so on. Mindless platitudes. Would I miss newspapers and their reporters? I'm not sure I would. Won't know until it happens.
Tony: like with music, the horse is out of the barn as far as information being free, or at least, much cheaper than it was. People go to specific sites for specific information--TPM for political news, for sports, or what have you. The model of a newspaper--many different types of news in one place--is dead. Or at least on life support. Very, very few people are going to pay for it now that's it been free for so long.

Reporters should be paid and supported; newspapers, I (and many others, I suspect) could give a rip about. We have to have a new model to support *reporting*, not newspapers. In my opinion as an online doc nerd with nearly 20 years of online doc experience, anyway. (Yes, predating the web.)
We need a new model to support cartoonists, too. Or else there won't be avatars for the future Douglas Morans, among other things.
I happen to agree, although the creator of my avatar has been dead for quite some time. I absolutely want to continue seeing Tom Toles, Tom Tomorrow, and the like.
I love this piece as a disgruntled journalist tired of corporate-owned news sources and journalism tailor-made for advertisers. I also think your father is a very wise man. As a former teracher, I really like the comparison to two-year-olds who lack conservation. Rated