Friday, March 28, 2014

Why we should pay for news



Last weekend's column in the Kingston Whig-Standard.

The other week I got a message from someone who is looking forward to reading my weekly columns. She told me how glad she was to find out that they’re available free of charge on the newspaper’s website, so she wouldn’t have to pay to buy it. I was dumbstruck, to be honest. Much as I liked hearing from a reader who is looking forward to my writings, didn’t it occur to her that these columns don’t come cost neutral? That someone, somewhere would have to pay for them?
Newspapers, I’m telling no secret here, are dying left, right and centre, and not only smaller papers like the Whig-Standard are an endangered species, even bigger papers seem on their way out. Newsrooms across the nation have lost a large number of journalists to cost-cutting exercises. The working conditions of journalists – they were never great to begin with – are truly appalling. Job security in this industry is abysmal at the best of times. As a result, most newspapers aren’t what they once were in terms of quality. To create economies of scale larger publishers like Quebecor gobbled up smaller papers like the Whig, the London Free Press, and the list goes on. As a result we end up with local newspapers that are barely recognizable as local newspapers.
Why did this concentration of media ownership occur in the first place? Economies of scale had to be created, mostly because of the internet. The internet with its seemingly free provision of news content 24 hours a day discouraged many of us from renewing our newspaper subscriptions. Young people have grown up without a daily newspaper in their homes. They check quickly what the Huffington Post offers free of charge on-line, skip over to a celebrity gossip sites like TMZ, and that’s it for the day. No need then to pay for a local paper. In these outlets the difference between reporting and opinionating has become sufficiently blurred today as to have become a problem in its own right.
I do think this has very serious consequences for local democracy. Local newspapers are the only instrument really that permits us to keep our local councilors, as well as provincial and national politicians accountable. Full-time local journalists are needed to investigate and report what is happening in our community. We cannot just rely on volunteer bloggers to fill that gap. Talking back to Mayor Mark Gerretsen on his Facebook page isn’t quite the same either. So, there’s a first reason why you should subscribe to a local paper.
The same holds true for national broadsheets, too. The Globe and Mail is struggling badly and has been struggling financially for quite some time. It has asked journalists to take unpaid leave during the summer period last year to save money. The editor-in-chief was sacked  unceremoniously this week. The paper has recently introduced a paywall to ensure that people eventually pay for reading its content. The company also took a hit on the credibility front when it decided to keep on staff a columnist accused of repeatedly plagiarizing in her columns. It’s not quite clear to me who would want to pay for that. I’m not sure how that pay wall experiment will pan out, but good luck to them. The Guardian in the UK tried the opposite. It gives its news away free of charge through its website and hopes that eventually it’ll grow sufficiently to become a global media organization capable of relying entirely on advertising revenue from on-line ads. That’s a bit like trying to out-compete Google. Suffice it to say, at this point in time it doesn’t look as if this experiment is going to work out. The company also offers voluntary subscriptions. You pay a nominal fee and receive in return an advertising-free website.
On the other hand, there are thriving specialist news magazines. Unlike low-quality garden-variety magazines like Newsweek, Time or Reader’s Digest, highbrow international magazines like the Economist go economically from strength to strength. The lesson to me: there is a large number of people who are willing to pay for high-quality investigative journalism and analysis. Of course, the Globe and Mail isn’t the New York Times, and it certainly isn’t of Economist quality analysis. However, Canada needs a thriving national newspaper market. Why? For reasons similar to those I gave for the importance of local newspapers. Without the Globe and Mail and papers like the National Post, who would hold our politicians accountable? Who would be able to finance investigative journalism? Would we really want to depend entirely on what commercial news channels offer to us courtesy of their advertisers? How many investigative stories can W5 realistically put together in a year, compared to what the Globe and Mail continues to produce on a daily basis? We will be a much poorer country for it if those newspapers collapse because we are too cheap to pay for quality news.
What’s probably unimportant is whether a news organisation relies on print or operates entirely on-line. I love holding a newspaper when I read it, but that shows more how much of a romantic Luddite I am when it comes to this medium then the necessity of having print newspapers. I wonder why haven’t on-line newspapers long begun selling their different bits and pieces of news as subscription packages? What would be so bad about being able to subscribe to the Whig’s local content only?
And here ends this week’s sermon: if you are among those who read this column on the newspaper’s website free-of-charge, why don’t you subscribe today and so strengthen our democracy. It’s kind of a civic duty. You might not always agree with what you read, but it is important to have locally employed full-time journalists informing us about what’s going on in our fair city.
Udo Schuklenk holds various newspaper and magazine subscriptions, teaches ethics at Queen’s University and tweets @schuklenk

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