Great read from Current Affairs linked to by Gruber (via Kottke -- love how this stuff gets around) earlier today that I am compelled to add to, as it hits an important beat on my radar of journalism.
The gist of the article is that quality, integrity-based journalism exists, it's available, but there's often a paywall or fee to access it. Other sites, like Fox News, Breitbart, and the Daily Wire are free, but spin significant misinformation and second-rate journalism or news curation.
This is, at its heart, a difficult problem to solve, especially given the Herculean undertaking publishers and journalists are going through in attempting to stay afloat financially -- especially at the local level. There is no easy answer here. Major curators with native apps built-in, like Apple News and Google News, do an important job of bringing a variety of news sources together to cover breaking news, topical news, etc., but also point to articles that require subscriptions or another layer to the app itself (like Apple News+).
There are some larger issues at play here, though, beyond the free vs. paid dilemma:
- You could make a convincing argument that most people nowadays do not read full-length articles and skim headlines or images as representations of the “news”, and that paywalls aren’t as important in these contexts. Sure, free news does a great job of capturing that vibe anyways since the content itself is fairly vapid.
- Those who believe in the institutional importance of journalism, funding well-sourced and researched reports, and keeping companies and government in check at all levels of geography probably pay for news. Others who believe the media is biased, fake, misleading, or have become disillusioned with the matters covered have resorted to simply getting their fix elsewhere (radio and TV), and usually from fewer sources. (And yes, there’s a middle ground here, but this is the spectrum.)
- TV news. Instagram “news”. Facebook “news”. These visual-based mediums continue to be problematic: they are much more bias-driven in messaging than reading an audio-less, visual-less (aside from photography) investigation or report. And they’re free or easily accessible via a pre-paid TV package.
So, yes, it’s a dire situation when you zoom out at the discrepancy in what type of news is free and behind a paywall, but the nature of and vessel for news is also a concern. It’s too easy to dismiss news, or sideline its importance, or view it in an exceedingly lazy way. Without focused commitment from readers or viewers or listeners, journalism dissolves, and what you have left are the easiest, frictionless click-worthy shells of its former self. To incentivize people to pay for news you have to create redeemable value. Perhaps some of these great publishers should take a cue from the freebie sites and partition their way doing business: carve off hard-hitting, visual treatments of real, on-the-ground news stories that are freely available and easily shareable, but always tie it back to a site that, if you want to truly read more about it, you have to pay, and present a value proposition on why someone should fund it.
The New York Times has done a tremendous job with The Daily, a widely-listened to podcast that is free and accessible to anyone, but drives home a consistent point in subscribing to continue to fund these efforts. That’s a great value proposition. Alternatively, Axios does a remarkable job of cutting through the heavier reports and simplifying the news to bulleted lists and summaries, plus has a few ancillary, very short podcasts. They, conversely, do not have a subscription-based service and use advertising and (likely) residual earning from HBO for their show, to fund the work.
Either way works, but publishers need to start thinking more responsibly about how they operate in the news climate of 2020 to combat and elevate visibility of their better products in the midst of cheaper, shittier, more dangerous free alternatives.