Why Good Journalism Should Not Be Free

I am a strong believer in the Fourth Estate – the press and its necessary place in society. Journalism has always been an essential component of any healthy democracy, a fact that any dictator knows very well. The press should always be independent and without bias, able to freely critique the government and the corporate sector and hold them accountable to the citizenry. When it works, it works exceptionally well. When it breaks, it breaks an important part of a healthy society.

Media bias has become a thing. I suppose it’s always been around to a certain degree or another, but these days it seems so brazenly in our face that it must have penetrated almost every aspect of journalism. When I think of why it’s gotten this bad, I realize that there are a lot of parties to blame. Big corporations; money; government; the “system”; maybe even bad capitalism. Yet when I really think about it, I think the very people that journalism is meant to represent – the citizenry – may be the very people who have allowed journalism to get to the state that it has. In other words, it’s mostly our own fault.

How? We wanted it to cost us nothing. And delivered in the most convenient way possible, all for nothing. But it has certainly cost us something: good, non-biased, factual news.

But how on earth did we ever expect that anyone could provide for us proper journalism – with investigative reporting and the whole lot – for nothing? The truth is that that’s impossible. The general idealism of the Internet believed (and still believes) everything should be free, especially media (movies, music, news, etc.). Did we not think that people actually need to be paid to do something well?

The idea was that if enough people are reading a publication or a story, that publication could sell tons of advertising. So it all became about the numbers – views, hits, quick reads. It became about quantity over quality. And we’re now surprised? So I’m joining the rising chorus that is announcing the death of free journalism. And I say, actually, good riddance.

If we want publications to be less biased, and if we want higher factual reporting, and if we want journalism to represent us as the citizenry, we can’t let either the government fund it or the corporations fund it. So that throws out state-funded news (obviously, a bad idea) and it also throws out straight-up corporate-funded news. (Obviously, a publication has to be owned by someone, but how they make a profit and pay for it is what we are talking about here.)

Advertising has shown to not work online, and I wonder if it’s ever really worked, to be honest. Buzzfeed’s latest layoffs are a case in point. (I’ve never really seen Buzzfeed as a very reliable source anyway: too biased.) Firstly, there are just too many players in the digital market, and secondly, Facebook and Google and the likes have taken most of the pie, with smarter algorithms and the like. More than that, advertising generally seems to force a drop in quality, because what’s more important invariably to an editor and shareholders is the advertising. That’s why Buzzfeed is mostly what it is.

That leaves only two models left – subscription or donations. Given that most people don’t see the value of good journalism until it’s gone, subscription models are, in my mind, the best solution. The trouble with donations is they are liable to corruption. This is because it is generally only rich benefactors who donate, while the rest of the citizenry doesn’t quite see the value until it’s too late. Rich benefactors often develop an agenda and the pressure is on to please them to a degree, and then we have some sort of bias all over again. Also, benefactors often change their mind or life happens. Mike Bloomberg, for example, will try to sell off Bloomberg if he runs for president. It doesn’t make sense for it all to be in the hands of one guy.

The New York Times and the Economist are examples of big names that are finding big success with subscriptions. Even the blogging platform, Medium, now offers a subscription service to get the best blogs. I have lots of hope for this as I really believe blogging is underrated. ReutersDigital News Report showcases the trends: people are starting to be happy to pay for news again.

Change is in the air with many media companies shifting models towards higher quality content and more emphasis on reader payment. We find that the move to distributed content via social media and aggregators has been halted — or is even starting to reverse, while subscriptions are increasing in a number of countries. Meanwhile notions of trust and quality are being incorporated into the algorithms of some tech platforms — as they respond to political and consumer demands to fix the reliability of information in their systems.

– Reuters Digital News Report 2018

So it seems that the trends are going the right way, and it’s partly, I believe, because the competition is on not for quantity but for quality. At last. It used to be all about the hits, the reads, the masses… now there is a realization that quality trumps quantity, especially when people are willing to pay. When I was working in the journalism business full time, we pumped out twenty articles each in a day as journalists. We tried our best to keep the quality up there, but to be honest, that’s not possible when the objective is to get as many stories out as possible. Eventually you’re writing those stupid list articles (“listicles”) that Buzzfeed became famous for, or you’re just relying way too much on press releases, and a dozen other things that made (and make) me cringe.

Micro-transactions might work. See Blendle. There you pay a couple of cents per article, and it has a wide variety from big publications. But I’m still not entirely convinced that people like to pay for journalism that way, although I hold great hope for the platform. What people do like is convenience – and I think most people would rather subscribe to a name they trust and have the news delivered to them. Even at a couple of cents an article, I’m still wondering to myself when I see something that gets my interest there: is it worth me paying for this one?

I really liked what Amazon were experimenting with at one stage – Kindle newspapers. You can still get them, but it appears most publications have not jumped on the platform, and Amazon seems to push its magazines more than newspapers. (Even the Washington Post, owned by Bezos, appears to push its app more than its Kindle newspaper.) I subscribed to the Mail & Guardian for awhile and I found it a wonderful experience. You wake up in the morning and there’s your paper delivered to you, on your e-ink Kindle. Since it’s not an LCD screen, you can enjoy not straining your eyes, and read your paper in a relaxed way, without messages popping up and distractions when you’re on your phone and tablet. I always thought that newspapers could maybe subsidize a Kindle to year-long subscribers. But it hasn’t seemed to have taken off as well as I thought it could.

But all this shows that – like with movies and music – the days of free content are coming to an end. I subscribe to a music streaming service, and I’ll never look back. All the effort of having to store your own music and label it appropriately etc. is no longer something I need to worry about. I also subscribe to Netflix, and while I don’t use it as much as I’d like due to my interests, it’s so much better and more convenient than trying to store your own movies on a hard drive. Like with Netflix, once it becomes more common practice to pay for news, you can bet the quality will go up as the competition changes. How wonderful would it be if newspapers jockeyed for being known as the least biased, the most factual, the most reasonable, the most thoughtful? I hope (and pray) those days are coming – and I think they will. While not all of journalism should cost us (local news might be another story), I do think that most of it should. And if we would pay for it we would do ourselves – and our society – a good service.


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3 thoughts on “Why Good Journalism Should Not Be Free”

  1. Hmmm, playing the drivel’s advocate here (if you’ll pardon my little joke).
    What about group reporting, like Wikipedia. They’re always begging for donations to keep the platform alive, but the content is group written and edited. And for that reason it makes a good foil for other sources.
    I also wonder about science journals. So much of our worldview is based around peer-reviewed, double blind trials I find people read journalistic opinion on studies rather than studies themselves. Maybe it’s because studies usually cost something.
    But even those studies are biased, they are funded by some group wanting some result. And many studies that desperately need doing will never be funded.
    To your point I read a quote recently: “The news used to tell you that something happened then you had to decide what you thought about it. Now the news tells you how to think about something and you have to decide if it even happened.”
    Big pharma in the US is by far the biggest advertiser on TV news, and more than double the lobbying size of Energy and IT industries combined in Washington.
    Maybe what that tells me is to believe the inverse of medical news.

    1. Hahaha, “drivel’s advocate”.

      I think that Wikipedia is a different animal to journalism as a whole. It’s not really ‘news’, it’s more an encyclopedia, and giving out knowledge for free to the world is an amazing resource and an amazing dream. Wikipedia has fantastic rules and ways of keeping Wikipedia articles without bias, with enough citations, and clean from error – things that editors and journalists have often thrown out in the name of just getting a story out.

      Thanks Al, great points!

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