May 24, 2018
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An argument for paying for journalism

Sarah Smiley | BDN
Sarah Smiley | BDN
Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

With the Bangor Daily News’s recent announcement about the introduction of a paywall later this month, I’ve randomly engaged — in the supermarket, at the post office, with my kids’ friends — in a favorite pastime of mine: asking people how they get their news. I teach journalism at the local universities, so this is an issue that is particularly important to me.

Not surprisingly, most people — especially the younger ones—say they get their news online. (Sigh. So how do they do the crossword puzzle?) And increasingly, the youngest of them are finding news through posts their friends and acquaintances make on social media. It’s rare to find young people today who read the newspaper in print. They have never bought a newspaper from the newsstand or plucked it from the front steps in the morning.

Which is why my next question is really difficult for them: “Should the news be free?”

Some people said that receiving the news is a right and that it’s unfair to keep people who are unable to pay a subscription in the dark about world events. But who pays for the production of that news? Anyone who has taken world history knows it cannot and should not be the government. So do advertisers support the news? Or can we, as citizens, make a statement about the free press and news that isn’t fake by putting our dollars behind a publication we trust?

When for most of your life the news has come at you in a steady stream on social media and Google, these are difficult questions, and paying for that same news seems unfair. “Can you really expect people to pay for the news?” one person said. “Won’t they just go get their news somewhere else?”

You can tell the age of a person by that kind of answer. Because, in fact, the news used to never be free. Not until it went online.

For sure, the newspaper industry struggled with the transition, and commentary from the early 2000s is almost prophetic and yet still naive regarding free news. In October 2007, Slate published a piece titled “ Why You Didn’t Pay to Read This.” The New York Times had just announced that almost all of its material would be free to readers online. “So, is this the death of subscription-model newspapers?” writer Tim Harford wrote. “And will the availability of so much free online journalism also doom their pricier print editions to a slow death?”

Online journalism doomed some publications, yes, but Harford’s predictions say nothing of what online journalism would do to public discourse through online comments and the scourge of fake news.

Two years later, in April 2009, in a New York Times article titled “ They Pay for Cable, Music and Extra Bags. How About News?” Richard Perez-Pena and Tim Arango noted that people even pay to have their tap water filtered and bottled for them, but they resist paying for good journalism. Then they asked, “from networks selling downloads of TV shows, to music companies trying to curb file-sharing, to struggling newspapers and magazines, the make-or-break question is this: How do you get consumers to pay for something they have grown used to getting free?”

Nearly nine years later, we are still asking the same questions, even as we bemoan fake news.

More recently, the American Press Institute this year did a survey to find out who is still paying for news and why. The survey found that “people are drawn to subscribe to news for three reasons above others — because a publication excels at coverage of key topics, because friends and family subscribe to the publication, and to a lesser degree, in response to discount promotions on subscription prices.” They found that 4 in 10 subscribers pay because they trust that news source.

In my conversations this week around town, people had questions for me, too — like, “How do we know what’s fake news and what’s not?” I could go on here. Just give me an hour, at least. It begins with adding journalism to our schools’ curriculum, teaching children from a young age how to be knowledgeable consumers of news. The disappearance of student-led, print newspapers from most of our country’s high schools is a big void in education today, not only from a language arts perspective, but from the standpoint of teaching young adults how to navigate in today’s media environment.

But battling fake news also means supporting publications that aren’t. Protesting with our pocketbooks is not a new concept, although usually it means not giving business to a company. You can do the reverse with journalism. Put your money, i.e. you subscription dollars, behind journalism you trust.

For hundreds of years, that’s the way it worked. And for the past decade, we’ve seen what happens when the system collapses.

 


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