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Good journalism shouldn’t be free

by Clara Gepner December 3, 2019
Good journalism shouldn’t be free

Journalism is in a crisis — print and digital advertising revenues have collapsed.

According to the Local News Research Project, over 250 news outlets have closed their doors in the last decade in Canada, and many more have had to lay off journalists to stay afloat.

Now that advertisers are turning to social media, news organisations are being forced to change the way they do business, and many are turning to audience-paid models.

You have probably encountered some of these before: The Montreal Gazette gives you five free articles per month, and outlets like La Presse ask you to contribute a small amount monthly.

Paywalls have likely discouraged you from reading an article or watching a news video in the past. Why pay when you can get the same information for free elsewhere?

Well, I think it’s time to stop expecting quality journalism to magically appear on our newsfeeds.

As an audience, we need to differentiate between quality and commodity, and start paying journalists accordingly for the service they provide.

We can’t expect journalists to be the watchdogs of society, to attend city council meetings and political events, to investigate corruption and keep the powerful accountable, and then write engaging articles about it… for free.

Journalists are members of society, and although journalism may be their passion, it is still their profession: they need – and deserve – to get paid for the work they do. Especially since, as the National Association of Journalists in The Netherlands has reported, they have to do more work with fewer colleagues and less resources.

If we don’t pay for quality journalism, there will be no quality journalism.

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, only seven per cent of Canadians paid for news in the past year, and most of these people only paid for one news subscription.

These are not promising numbers, and paywalls seem to work only for certain legacy news organizations like The New York Times.

However, we as an audience can make the decision to pay for journalism and help small, local news outlets thrive. And, as a 2018 study by digital news company The Discourse has shown, when we pay for news through memberships and subscriptions, journalists are incentivized to directly serve our communities and perform public service journalism – such as solutions and investigative journalism – instead of selling our attention to advertisers.

As U.S. media critic Jay Rosen said, a subscription business model is about “re-establishing a direct relationship between the users of news and the producers of news that is strong enough to withstand the telling of hard truths.” It allows the audience to pay directly for the news they value, and provides the news people need in addition to the news they want.

This kind of journalism is incredibly important in this day and age. We can’t rely on news outlets owned by millionaires or funded by foundations to give us in-depth, unbiased information. These organizations, by virtue of where they get their funding, cannot be fully independent. Even if these donors have no bad intentions, The Columbia Journalism Review has shown that journalists feel the influence of these donors, and that affects the journalism they do.

The only way to get quality journalism that does not influence us, but inform us, is to willingly pay for it. I believe paying for journalism should become as natural to us as paying our monthly phone bill.

To be clear: I am not arguing for paywalls. Business models based on making certain tiers of information only accessible to those who can afford it are a recipe for disaster.

I am only arguing that those of us who can afford to pay for news, should. If you can afford to pay for a Netflix or Spotify subscription, you can afford to pay $10 a month for The Montreal Gazette to provide you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen.

We have the power to change the way journalism is done: when we directly fund small, local news organisations, we give them the resources to produce in-depth stories from a range of perspectives. And when larger news outlets see that we want diverse, complex coverage of issues that affect us, they will follow suit.

Ultimately, in the words of Last Week Tonight host John Oliver, “sooner or later, we are either going to have to pay for journalism, or we are all going to pay for it.”

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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