Opinion | We need the news, but we don’t want to pay for it

Lauren Ross is a Lansing resident. She is a researcher and nonprofit communications professional.  

Imagine going a day without news – no weather reports, stock market trends, traffic, or “State of the …” updates; how would your day be different?

We need the news - but we don’t want to pay for it. We hate being bombarded by ads, though advertisers want their dollars to go further. Many people are simply unable to afford to pay for news. And still, we need the news – so who should pay for it?

A recent Pew Charitable Trust Magazine article cites the decline in news revenue as a major contributor to the massive layoffs and publication closures in the past decade, in addition to a shift in readership. The rise of Craigslist left newspapers out in the cold for classified ads, losing two-thirds of their advertising revenue between 2006 and 2017. News companies could no longer afford to staff newsrooms at the levels they did in the past. Most of the “news” people read or watch on a daily basis today has been re-reported from another source (I’m doing it right now).

This is a major problem for a number of reasons. As the article notes, “as newsrooms have fewer reporters … public corruption can go undetected.” As the system of checks and balances begins to fall apart, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Related: Support nonprofit Michigan news, become a member of Bridge

We can see the impact here in Michigan, where some newspapers have closed and many others have fewer reporters than in the past. Your “Daily Gazette” or “Town Journal” may still arrive on the porch in the morning, but you may notice a change in the stories that get published.

Although information transfer may be at an all-time high with social media and connectivity, the spread of false information has grown right alongside of factual reporting. It may even be argued that biased and false information is being shared at a greater rate than factual news, as a result of people’s complacency with and reliance on single-source news.

We’ve nearly reached crisis level - so how do we fix it? The current funding model that relies on subscriptions and advertisements is clearly not working, and has the additional effect of creating an inaccessible information stream for lower income individuals. Someone has to pay for the news, and decades of decline have shown that the public, including advertisers, do not want the burden.

Being informed about the society you live in is a clear necessity for the public good. There is an existing funding mechanism that could be implemented, if we consider the news as a type of educational system, and create a tax to fund reporting organizations.

However, even educational funding has been at risk in recent years, and government financing and oversight has potentially detrimental consequences (think, propaganda). And there are downstream issues to consider as well, such as who decides how the money is distributed? Who decides what constitutes a “news organization,” and how do we ensure that those who receive the funding are using it well?  

There are numerous non-profit research organizations like Pew, NPR, and others which rely on endowments and charitable gifts to continue their operations, and which can be relied on to report factual, unbiased information without such oversight.

In Michigan, we are seeing increasing numbers of nonprofit news organizations arising, like Bridge Magazine, seemingly in response to the lack of local investigative reporting. This is good – society has recognized a gap and is working to fill it, though we have a long way to go.

As we move forward, it will become more and more important to think critically about the source of our news, and to ensure that all people have access to the same information, regardless of socioeconomic status.

For now, those who can, should subscribe and donate to non-profit publications, though if that were all it took, we would not be having this conversation. So the issue of who should pay for the news will still need to be addressed, in order to curtail this unsustainable trend in “already been chewed” news.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Comments

Arjay
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 9:19am

We once had a family friend that owned a small AM radio station. The tagline was "When you hear it, it's news. When you read it, it's history." Any wonder why print media is disappearing? The TV and radio stations have reporters on scene as news is happening. The local media reports what happened a day or two later.

Agnosticrat 2.0
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 1:12pm

The local media reports what happened a day or two later.....
With actual facts that have been misrepresented by the broadcast media multiple times.

Subee
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 9:45am

If young children grew up using newspapers in classrooms as primary sources, perhaps we can create a future audience with an appreciation of the printed word.

R.L.
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 10:13am

Many people aren't able or willing or able to pay $200 plus dollars a year for their local news paper. With 24 7 news , internet and the radio the newspapers will continue to loose readers. peace R.L.

Bernadette
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 10:35am

Thank you Lauren for this article. You have been paying attention and have identified many of the trends. I donate monthly to several of the publications you mentioned. People are waking up to the fact that much of what is considered news is biased and "fake news".

I see the media evolving and hope others will support those trusted sources that has helped many of us to wake up. Keep doing your work and alerting us to the importance.

Bill
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 1:53pm

So as you mentioned in your article (and as I recall when I worked at a newspaper) a very large portion of revenue came from classified ads, and most of the rest from commercial ads.
Even if people did become individual paying subscribers, it still would not be enough to bring back the payroll capability of previous decades. We need to think of this differently than asking customers to pay for their news.

Lauren
Mon, 04/15/2019 - 9:49am

Thanks for the comment Bill. I agree, and I tried to touch on that - no industry can rely on a single source of revenue to be sustainable. I don't want us to fall into a 'pay to play' system of news; so I think it is important to start the conversation so that a solution can be found before it's too late.

KPM
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 3:25pm

Journalism has sunk to a spectacular low, with "news" carrying a heavy bias, on both the left and the right. The New York Times and CNN are good examples. If they portrayed their articles as opinion, it would be a different story. Also, I believe NPR receives substantial funding from the US taxpayer.
Technology has disrupted the traditional delivery and revenue sources for the news business. It needs to adapt.

***
Wed, 04/10/2019 - 10:24pm

I read the NYT online but refuse to pay for it, they tell me I have reached the monthly limit of free articles but if I come in a few days the counter resets and I get another set of free articles. Its really just a kind of game I'm playing with them, I pick and choose what I want to read and I'm satisfied with the arrangement they give me. No real incentive to subscribe.

AppleCiderRadio
Thu, 04/11/2019 - 9:40am

I played that game for a long time.
Then I decided that a Democracy needs a Free Press, and subscribed to the NY Times, Washington Post, and several others.
You get what you pay for.

duane
Wed, 04/10/2019 - 10:58pm

This article is epitomizes the ‘news’ problem, the widening disconnect between writer/editor/‘news’ organization and the reader/customer. The headline tells us what we need and should pay for, and yet the article fails to ask about what the reader wants and what we value.
The writer talks about the need for weather, the national weather service [taxpayer funded] provides what is ‘reported’ in the media, and it is easily available to all. Similarly, she mentions the stock market; which brokerage firms and the markets provide to all, even offering more. This feeds the impression that reporting is about what rationalizes their agenda rather than what is factual. Why should readers pay for inaccuracies or for someone else’s agenda?
Why don’t the writer/ editor show interest in their audience, why not ask readers what information they want/need/ use? The impression is that the writer/editor are telling us what our values should be.
The writer tells us the historic model of the marketplace is failing, and yet she makes no mention of even wondering how other service providers are succeeding in such an environment, no mention of trying to accommodate readers. The writer seems to only be able [much like all the failed newspapers] see change as the readers fault rather than her and the ‘news’ willingness to change.
The reality is the marketplace model is the best for the user/reader, the organization providing the service/product changes to provide for the wants/needs/uses of the consumer and that is how progress happens.
If Ms. Ross and Bridge want to see ‘news’ survive then they need to ask the right questions and listen, not telling readers what to value or believe, and they should be looking outside their ‘world’ for different perspectives for looking at their customers and their services.

Erin
Thu, 04/11/2019 - 1:38am

No news is good news

James Roberts
Thu, 04/11/2019 - 10:12am

Poor little "jounalism" graduates who had big plans to be the next Woodward and Berstein and change the world. Perhaps that is the problem, readers are perceptive enough to tell when they are being lectured to and as a result have tuned out. Don't know if it is possible for you all to get back your neutral credibility, just the facts etc. Afraid the old business model is DOA.

Bryan Watson
Thu, 04/11/2019 - 9:59pm

I watch news on TV when I want a very brief mention about what happened - like scanning the headlines without reading the story.
I watch news analysis on TV (or listen on radio) when I want to hear people interacting, exchanging analyses, asking questions and getting answers.
I read news in newspapers or magazines (in print or online) when I'm looking for deep analysis, historical background, thoughtfully researched information, and excellence in the use of the English language. [This is why I'm a paying subscriber to New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Bridge Magazine, Economist, Time, Nation, and a few others.]
'Long-form' reporting (such as we find in Bridge) is more education than news. The same might be said of other genre, even if the focus is not on politics but on sports or celebrity or food or travel. That's what I think is worth paying for.

Sally
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 11:16am

If we want our news to be free then all we have to do is become highly trained in recognizing propaganda techniques and become immune to them.
The side effect though would be that advertising is no longer effective. That revenue source for news would dry up. Then we would have no news, or would pay for it.

Sally
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 11:19am

If we want our news to be free then all we have to do is become highly trained in recognizing propaganda techniques and become immune to them.
The side effect though would be that advertising is no longer effective. That revenue source for news would dry up. Then we would have no news, or would pay for it.