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.”
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.