Sorry, news gathering is not free
If you are reading this, it means there is a good chance you are paying for it. And if that is the case, I want to say thanks. It appears you’re a rare bird.
The Pew Research Center last week released the results of a large survey that looked at the way people consume local news, or don’t bother to do so. Those results were discouraging, both for the prospects of local news gathering and for the future of participatory democracy at the local level.
Only 14 percent of those surveyed said that they have directly paid for a local news source through subscription, donation or membership. It’s not that they were unhappy with the local reporting in their community. Only 10 percent cited concern about quality or fairness for their unwillingness to pay. Seventy-three percent said their local media do a good job of dealing fairly with all sides, and 63 percent said their local journalists appear to be in touch with the community.
The top reason for being unwilling to pay for local news gathering, picked by half of the respondents, was the availability of free content.
Shockingly, to this journalist, 71 percent said they have the impression their local news media are doing well financially. Boy, are they wrong.
Newspapers are struggling. So-called news deserts, areas where there is little or no local news coverage, are expanding. About 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weeklies have closed since 2004, an overall decline of 25 percent. Nearly 200 of the 3,143 counties in the United States no longer have a newspaper. More than 2,000 counties have no daily paper, according to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, based at the University of North Carolina.
Loss of advertising, primarily from internet competition, has turned the business model on which the newspaper industry was built upside-down. Abundant advertising allowed newspapers to deeply discount subcription costs. Now the industry needs subscribers, or members, to pay more to underwrite the cost of news gathering. Newspaper companies straddle two worlds, still producing a print product with home delivery for an aging (and dying) audience — and that’s expensive — while developing a digital model to carry them into the future, maybe.
People may want their news free, but it is not free to gather. Journalists are professionals, their jobs challenging. They must be well informed on numerous subjects. They must know what information to gather, where to find it, and how to use open-government laws to get at it when public officials try to hide it. They must sit through long meetings, read and assess complex documents, then disseminate information to the public in a form that is interesting and understandable. And often they have to do it quickly, on deadline.
It’s a job. And like any job, they deserve to get paid.
Local television stations, facing their own struggles, were cited as the preferred source for local news by 38 percent of respondents, while 22 percent pointed to radio and 17 percent newspapers (including the online components of all three).
Local TV is free, I suppose, if you don’t factor in your cable bill. But it doesn’t really cover local news. TV reporters won’t tell you what is up with your local schools or at town hall, unless there is big scandal. And they probably won’t spend any time in your community, unless someone gets murdered.
Local TV news does do well reporting on the top two things that respondents listed as most “important for daily life.” On that count, weather hit a best score, by far, of 70 percent, with crime second at 44 percent.
Government and politics were cited as important for daily life by only 24 percent, though 50 percent responded they were important, but not for daily life. They’re wrong. The condition of the roads you drive on, the quality of the schools your kids go to, the taxes you pay, the subdivision plans for nearby land that are sitting in a town hall office, the laws you live under — things that affect you daily — are determined by government and politics.
How does participatory democracy work when so many are willfully uninformed? Who will be the watchdogs against corruption at city hall if so few are willing to pay journalists? The Washington Post has adopted the slogan, "Democracy Dies in Darkness." It's true.
The Day was formed with the job of informing the local community about news, arts, sports — about daily life. It is independent. Held in trust, its revenues are largely plowed back into the local product, with some disbursements to critically important non-proft agencies in our community through the Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation.
Digitally, we are making great strides in providing news and information in new ways — live feeds of high school sports, podcasts, videos to accompany news reports, chances for you to submit topics you want answered, topical newsletters — all available on your favorite mobile device or desktop computer. But none of it is free to produce.
If you’re not paying you might consider doing so. You can get information at www.theday.com/memberservices or by calling 860-701-4400. I have never made a pitch like this in my 40-year career as a journalist. Given that survey, I decided it was time.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.