During the coronavirus outbreak, a number of local and national media outlets chose to lower their paywalls and give readers free and unfettered access to content on the topic. The argument these publications make is that the pandemic is too important of a topic to have people getting information from lousy sources just because those sources are free.
(Side note: I give this blog away for free to everyone and I don’t get paid to do it, so I’m kind of pondering what that makes me in all this…)
Experts from Poynter have debated the ethical obligations of publications to lower paywalls, coming at this from a variety of perspectives, as they debate the economic realities of media outlets and the importance of quality journalism. An interesting post from Howard Saltz, the Knight Innovator-in-Residence in the journalism faculty at Florida International University, makes the case that giving away content in this case is counterproductive.
As the former publisher and editor-in-chief of the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Saltz frames the argument well in terms of how “essential” doesn’t mean “it should be free” for most things we are desperate to get in this pandemic:
The newspaper industry seems to think that public service can’t coexist with revenue. That’s a mistake — at a time when the beleaguered industry can’t afford to make one. We do provide an important public service, but why can’t a public service business be, well, in business?
Food is essential, but grocery stores aren’t giving it away.
Clothing? Not free. Not even at Goodwill.
Police are being paid during the crisis. So are garbage collectors. There are no freebies at the pharmacy.
These are all essential to the community at a time of crisis, yet no one expects these goods and services to be free. What are newspapers afraid of? Our products have value. People pay for things of value.
I made a similar argument for the value of journalism about a year ago here on the blog. Today’s Throwback Thursday revisits that post, which provides some key reasons why journalism does, and should, cost money:
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl wrote a nice local column that took a look at how people consistently run red lights the corner of 60th and Capitol. The piece ran in the wake of a car wreck that killed an off-duty Milwaukee police officer, and was the kind of thing more papers would have done back in the days when staffs were robust and smoking was allowed in the newsroom.
I’ve linked to the article here, but most of you won’t be able to see it because it’s only accessible to the paper’s subscribers. When venerable journalist Crocker Stephenson, who used to work for the Journal-Sentinel, posted the piece to his Facebook wall, a number of people groused about their inability to access Stingl’s work.
Stephenson was not sympathetic:
In response, several people broke out the traditional diatribes against such larceny:
- Print is dead!
- You don’t cover the right stuff!
- Paywalls are a tool of the man!
- It’s stupid to pay for stuff like this because the internet is free!
Following the trail of breadcrumbs that led newspapers from being important local sources of information to disemboweled corporate shells would take far too long for a post like this. It would also take way too long to debate the merits of various profitability models that could return news organizations to prominence. However, in defense of the field itself, I’ll simply give you three reasons why complaining about having to spend your hard-earned couch-cushion cash on news is just plain dumb:
WORK COSTS MONEY: As dumb as that statement sounds, it seems necessary to make it up front. When your dishwasher decides to start flooding the house on a random Tuesday night, you call a plumber and beg someone to come over and stop the hydro-destructive force in your kitchen. When that guy or gal comes over and fixes the problem, you wouldn’t think to just say, “Thank you. I’m going on Facebook right now and putting a “like” on you today! Goodbye!”
The person did work, and you’re going to pay for it.
Truth be told, journalism ALWAYS cost money, but the readers didn’t notice because they weren’t footing the bill. It’s like picking up a prescription when you have insurance: You pay your $10 or $20 that is your part of the deal and the insurance company picks up the rest of the tab. It’s when your insurance is gone that you notice, “Holy crap! That’s some expensive stuff!”
For years, advertisers accounted for most of the costs of the work. Newspapers and magazines were chock full of large advertisements for everything from clothing stores to car dealerships. The money flowed freely, as newspapers could deliver eyeballs to the advertisers and thus demonstrate value to them. The ad money covered the big costs of doing journalism while your subscription or copy price was simply a token of good will.
The one benefit the audience had to the newspaper was in its sum total of eyeballs. The higher the circulation, the more newspapers could charge for ads. The system worked until it didn’t. (How and why it didn’t could take up a dozen books, but it’s not Craigslist’s fault, despite what publishers and hedge-fund managers who own newspaper stocks will tell you.)
Now you’re being asked to pay full price for the cost of journalism and it suddenly looks exorbitant.
In addition, the reason it’s easier to short journalists is because it never seems like we are saving you from a disaster like the tow-truck driver who gets your broken car off the freeway or the tree surgeon who pulls the giant oak that fell during a storm off your house. We don’t have a special set of tools that leave you in awe or a product that you can show other people to say, “Check out what I bought!”
However, journalism is work. It costs money to do the work. You need to pay for it if you want or need it.
YOU’RE NOT PAYING FOR WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE PAYING FOR: People often assume that becoming a journalist has been a life-long ambition for anyone who entered the field after seeing “All The President’s Men” or “The Paper.” Truth be told, I never wanted to be a journalist or a journalism professor growing up. My freshman year of college, my life-long goal of becoming a lawyer was crushed after one bad Poli Sci course, so I went hunting for another major.
I knew I could write, so I figured on a degree in English, a subject I had dominated throughout high school and even in college. When I went home for Christmas break that year, I told my father that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer and that I was looking around at my options. Dad spent his entire career in a factory, so he was always practical in his advice: “Just make sure you can get a job. Don’t do something stupid like majoring in English or something like that.”
OK, that shot that.
I found journalism shortly after that and realized that with a few tweaks and overhauls, the writing I did in English could translate to this new field. The reason I stuck with it was because there WAS a job at the end of the rainbow for this major and it was one my father could easily see. He read the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel cover to cover every day. He saw the newspaper as a tangible representation of careers in journalism.
When I got my first reporting gig, Mom bought a subscription to the State Journal and had the paper mailed to her. She would cut out and keep my articles. Again, it was that dead-tree-and-ink element that showcased my livelihood.
The problem now is that those rolled-up wads of tree pulp are landing on fewer and fewer doorsteps, thus giving people the idea that “Print is dead.” Furthermore, the users always assumed that what their money paid for was that physical publication. Thus, as those things became smaller and less frequent, and people found their information in ways that didn’t involve deforestation, they figured there was no point in paying money for journalism.
The truth is, we were actually paying for information, but we never saw it that way. It was far easier for us to understand that simple goods-for-cash exchange that took place on street corners, through subscriptions or via news stands. Because we never really saw it as a knowledge-for-cash exchange, when the “good” went away, we didn’t see why money should be involved. As newspapers revenues shrunk, we saw losses of people and pages. The people? We didn’t notice that so much from the outside, but the pages? Yeah, we saw those cutbacks in newspapers and magazines.
To complain about paying for newspaper content is to say the content itself lacks value. That can be a perfectly legitimate statement, depending on the quality of the content or the cost of the access. However, when you WANT something, it demonstrates that the “something” has some level of value to you. Paying for it showcases the way you value it.
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR: When I was a grad student, I ended up at a conference in Washington, D.C. and a bunch of us decided to go out for a meal. What was supposed to be a run for cheap Chinese food somehow landed us at a restaurant where we were the worst-dressed people in there and most of us were clad in reasonably decent garb. We didn’t know how pricey the meal was going to be until one of the people in our party reached for a piece of bread and dropped some crumbs on the linen table cloth.
Out of nowhere, a guy in a white button-down jacket appeared with a little metal device. He scraped the crumbs into a white-gloved hand and then disappeared just as quickly.
Yeah, we were in for an expensive night.
Contrast that with what I usually see when I’m heading out for a meal: A disgruntled employee behind the counter at a local fast food joint takes someone’s order, screws it up twice and then can’t make change without an iPhone app. The customer gets the wrong meal, but usually just shakes his or her head and mutters something about “kids these days,” even if the employee is 35.
The point is, you get what you pay for. That’s true even in journalism.
When you’re getting stuff for free, it’s usually of a lower quality. What you’re paying for when you buy a subscription to the Times or the Post or the Journal-Sentinel is quality work. You’re paying to have someone who went to school to learn a trade present you with quality content that has value to you. You’re paying for expertise and experience. It’s the same way with the plumber scenario above: You could call your buddy to come over and “give it a shot” when it comes to getting the dishwasher under control, but you figure it’s worth the money to get someone in there who knows how to fix the thing properly.
The nice thing is that a lot of people who commented on Stephenson’s post saw things this way as well. Long-term subscribers saw the value in the content and noted they had willingly paid for it for years. My folks still get the paper delivered every day and on more than a few occasions, my mother has told me she worries that the paper might cease to be at some point. Thus, she pays for a subscription to help support the cause.
In looking at the costs associated with the paper, we aren’t talking about a critical spending decision, either. One offer let you pay something like a buck a month for three months of digital access. My print subscription to the Oshkosh Northwestern was something like $14 a month and that came with unlimited digital access. As Stephenson’s post points out, 33 cents gets you access to the whole paper.
(Conversely, it costs $2.99 to buy three lollipop hammers in Candy Crush and rarely do those things help as much as you think they will.)
Sure, I could argue that these publications aren’t what they once were, but I also know that candy bars used to be a nickel, but grousing about that doesn’t make them any cheaper now.
Besides, as my father and I like to say about buying random stuff at yard sales, I’ve wasted far more money on far dumber things.