Ouch. That One Got to Me
May 9, 2018
I frequently visit a news website that offers an engaging mix of political, cultural and editorial content. It’s a strictly digital publication, one of the earliest in the nascent days of the internet to try to charge for subscriptions. The subscription model flopped – too much content was available for free to motivate readers to cough up any spare change – so the site bit the bullet, dispensing with subscriptions and relying solely on advertising for revenue.
Now, it’s trying again, offering free basic access to the site but reviving subscriptions and promising all kinds of goodies for the takers. Visits to the site are periodically interrupted by appeals to subscribe. Like the vast majority of readers, I’m guessing, I simply X out the “Subscribe now!” window and continue gorging on the free content.
The ads usually emphasize the what’s-in-it-for-you angle: exclusive in-depth features, expanded interactivity, columns and essays otherwise unavailable . . . stuff like that. These appeals didn’t, um, appeal to me in the least. I don’t need expanded coverage. I barely have time to skim the free content. Whatever they’re offering for a price is something I don’t need.
But today, the site took a different approach: “Subscribe,” the ad pleaded, “to support our high journalistic standards.”
‘Don’t do it for selfish reasons,’ I was beseeched, in effect. ‘Do it for the common good stemming from a robust, dynamic free press.’
Okay, that one got to me. I started my career in newspaper journalism, and I’m a passionate advocate of the fifth estate. Journalism is intended to keep people and institutions honest, or at least accountable. Sure, it doesn’t always work, but even the chance of it working serves the public interest. It’s an absolute necessity for a democracy. It’s worth being done well, and the people who do it well are entitled to be paid.
But the internet has tossed journalism into a blender. Good writing, solid reporting and incisive, well-informed editorials are mixed in with gossip, rumor, innuendo and content that is shamefully pilfered from reputable sources. Those sources are the news outlets that hire reporters to actually go to crime scenes, sift through public records, attend City Council meetings, lob tough questions at press conferences. The sausage-making of journalism requires a lot of tough, tedious and tenacious work – work that benefits the entire citizenry in unfathomable ways. It’s work that deserves a paycheck.
Sure, I love the luxury of lapping up content for free. But I don’t love watching entire industries gasp for air because nobody is willing to pay for anything. Journalism, along with the arts industries, are struggling with all their might to keep afloat and maintain high standards while trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the digital wizardry that has conditioned people to expect valuable stuff for free.
We oughta pay these guys, you know? We gotta pay them.
Our democracy depends on it.