Have you heard? Newspapers are dying. Around the nation and around the world traditional newspapers are scaling down operations, merging, or failing altogether. The business model for decades has been to hire journalists and editors to find and write about the news and to pay for them using advertising and subscription revenues. And then came the internet. Many newspapers quickly realized that printing paper and delivering it to the new stand or doorstep loses valuable time and increases costs compared to simply publishing on the web. So off they went, foregoing subscription fees, and hoping that banner ads would easily cover their costs. Marketers were confident everything would be fine; banner ads offer significant improvements to advertisers over typical ads in that the advertiser might actually know something about how many people saw or, even better read (clicked on) the advertisement. Alas, web ads just haven’t covered the costs of all those journalists traveling the world.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times announced it would be charging users to read articles online. Not the first 20, mind you, but after that, you’re cut off…no New York Times for you until the next month. It ain’t cheap, either, at $15 – 35 per month depending on how many places you’d like to read it, from good ol’ paper to the web, iPads, and Kindles. They’re not the first paper to do this, a lowly Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Colorado) started charging for online reading over six months ago, and papers around the nation and world are either considering or planning to do the same.
I gotta say, from where I’m sitting, this is terrible news. Honestly, I’ve never paid for the news. I’ve never subscribed to the newspaper, and frankly, the day-to-day news is too full of noise to be interesting to me. But pay walls will dramatically limit the value of the internet and its ‘google knows everything’ appeal. The availability of so many perspectives on any, and every, given story makes it possible for me to extract information from so many views of what is actually happening. Depending on a single source, no matter how reliable will expose each of us to further bias, with little chance check up on them. Few of us will be able to afford to pay multiple news outlets.
Journalism is often described as the fourth estate of democracy, an integral part of a fair and rational government and a critical link in the chain of checks and balances. We pay (often too much) for our government, do we really expect this crucial piece to be free? It’s easy to decry to quality of the media in the last few decades (and, perhaps beyond). Often accused of conservative or liberal bias depending on which side of the aisle you come from, it’s probably more accurate to suggest that the media follows the money. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an oft repeated motto of the editor, because a bloody headline sells more papers (or commercial time) which increases the value for advertisers. In our current system, it’s those advertisers who are paying the journalists who found the blood. Controversy sells too. Sometimes cheerleading sells better, and above all, knowing your market (liberal or conservative, for example) sells too. We’ve paid for news on the web with little more than the intrusion of banner ads. It’s not too surprising, then, that we’ve simply gotten what we’ve paid for.
It remains to be seen, then, if the New York Times will use be able to use whatever new revenue they reap to staunch the bleeding or to improve the quality of their reporting. Will journalists once again be able to travel to every corner of the planet to find news (and not just the hotspots)? Will they be able to spend weeks, months, or sometimes years, on investigative reporting that makes journalism such a critical part of democracy? Will other news outlets follow their lead, erect a pay wall to view their news, but improve on the reporting? Above all, will we finally be willing to pay for it if they do?
In the meantime, Traveling Hypothesis will remain free. Remember, though, you get what you pay for!