Why You Should Subscribe To A Newspaper: Paywalls, Advertising & Investigative Journalism.

Why You Should Subscribe To A Newspaper: Paywalls, Advertising & Investigative Journalism.

People just aren’t willing to pay to get their news anymore. Sure, they might take out subscriptions to a few magazines, or even have a local newspaper delivered. But when it comes to reading articles online, people my age especially are resistant to spending money. Why throw down a few bucks a month for a subscription to a national newspaper when there are so many other news websites out there offering “free” access?

I’m not saying I haven’t been there too; I know a few ways to get around paywalls. But thankfully, newspaper paywalls only became more common around the time I headed off to college. For the past few years, my method of getting around the New York Times’ monthly article limit was getting paper copies and online student passes from my university. Many other newspapers offer free or reduced price access to their digital content to students as well; for example, the Washington Post offers free access to students with .edu email addresses.

Unfortunately, it costs money to create content, and it costs a LOT of money to fund good investigative journalism, as the nonprofit-run Mother Jones pointed out this year during a fundraising effort. Thankfully, my access to news sources during college wasn’t actually free by any means; Syracuse University was paying news organizations for its students to access content, and as students we were indirectly paying as well through our tuition fees. And even though I’m out of college, I’m in luck when it comes to subscriptions, since I live with my family. (I’d joke about being a millennial living in my parents’ basement, but we don’t have a basement.) We pick up several subscriptions by using our frequent flier miles, including an accidental double subscription to the Wall Street Journal. (Hopefully someone remembered to cancel the second one.)

Since becoming a content producer myself, I’ve realized that by not paying for content we’re contributing to a decrease in journalistic quality. You may wonder why this is. I mean, even if a website doesn’t have a paywall, it will get some amount of revenue from advertising, right?

Not necessarily. The problem is that print advertising makes newspapers a lot more money than online advertising does. Print ads cost advertisers more than online advertising, but they’re more likely to have an impact on readers. Unfortunately, newspapers are losing print subscribers, and thus print ad revenue. Before, newspapers made the bulk of their money by selling advertisements. But advertisers aren’t as willing to pay as much for online ads. So newspapers and traditional print media outlets have begun moving towards a circulation-based model, according to the American Journalism Review. Hence the paywalls: they’re annoying, and frequent readers in particular are often ready to pay to make them go away.

But for many others, paywalls are irrelevant, since they can head to sites that rely solely on online advertising to make money. And here’s where the problem begins. Not all content producers have enough resources to do their own reporting all the time. Many of these websites therefore use reliable traditional journalism outlets as sources, aggregating information from multiple sources and putting their own spins on the news. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you may be interested in reading a simplified version of what you saw on the 9 o’clock news. Or you could want more background information, or a personal account.

aid1113913-900px-Play-the-Telephone-Game-Step-9.jpgStill, some of these news sources aren’t actually news sources at all. Some of them are partisan websites that have a specific conservative or liberal agenda they’re hoping to push you towards with biased writing. You’ve heard of the game “telephone,” right? What the first person originally whispered often ends up completely different once it reaches the end of the line.

You may be aware of the controversy surrounding Mark Zuckerberg right now; the Facebook CEO claimed it was “crazy” that fake news on Facebook could have influenced election results. Sadly, that’s a little far from the truth. Facebook eliminated the human editors who curated trending news; now an algorithm handles this. But the algorithm got it wrong sometimes, and stories from fake news websites that were making the rounds sometimes trended. Even if the fake news came from sources outside Facebook, the fact remains that false or inaccurate news is a serious problem. Some fake news websites are cleverly disguised as existing news websites, just with an extra .co or .com at the end. For example, check out this ridiculous story about President Obama banning the Pledge of Allegiance, which comes from a website designed to look like that of ABC News. (You’ll see what I mean by calling it “ridiculous” if you keep reading until the end.)

Even disregarding fake news sites, even reliable news outlets are being influenced by the fact that they have to increase readership to make money. This drives click-based content creation models. Outlets will only publish material that will draw the greatest number of unique visitors. Sponsored content is abundant; you may have heard of “native advertising.” Content paid for by an advertiser is presented similarly to regular editorial content; except this content exists to promote a product or a service. And it’s getting harder and harder to tell sponsored content apart from regular content. Our media are literally being bought by those with money. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying every single media outlet is like this, and the issue of financing journalism goes beyond what I discuss in this post.)

As a writer and journalist who was trained at a school where journalistic standards were extremely high, I am appalled by some of the content that has been pushed by mainstream media. I get why it’s happening; it’s not possible for an outlet to survive if someone isn’t funding it. If people want to read about Hillary Clinton’s emails, it makes sense to flood the internet with articles about that from a financial standpoint.

But from a moral or ethical standpoint, not so much. Journalism exists to give power to the people. As journalists, we should be informing the public about important issues, not distracting them in pursuit of page views. Still, this is hard to do if readers aren’t paying for journalists to report and create eye-opening content.

This is why I urge you to take out a subscription to a reliable news source (or several). What you consider a reliable and worthy news source is up to you, but I suggest you choose one that does its own reporting. For the cost of a few pumpkin spice lattes, you could help fund the great investigative reporting that changes peoples’ lives.

Images: WOCinTechchat.com, Wikivisual

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Politicians’ false statements have real impacts & ‘ignorance’ is not an adequate excuse

Politicians’ false statements have real impacts & ‘ignorance’ is not an adequate excuse

I’m looking at you, Donald Trump.

When I know someone is blatantly lying to me, I’m understandably angry. I have an even lower tolerance for this nonsense when the person lying is a politician on the news. Unfortunately, our presidential candidates are not above making false statements. Fact-checkers have been having a field day with Donald Trump (and Hillary Clinton to a lesser extent); after a week of fact-checking, Politico found that Trump told an untruth every 3.25 minutes, while Clinton made a false statement every 12 minutes. While neither of these figures is good news for voters, it is telling that Trump lies almost four times as much as Clinton.

It’s understandable if someone gets a figure slightly wrong; we’re not robots after all, and politicians have to be well-versed in so many subject areas. But there’s no excuse for extreme exaggerations and unsupported statements. We elect politicians to represent and carry out the will of their constituents, the American people. This means politicians and political candidates have sway over large portions of the population; their supporters are likely to see them as credible figures. False statements can and do have real impacts on the beliefs and actions of real people.

Let’s take recent claims of the presidential election being run questionably. I’ve written about this several times, but the facts don’t back up claims of “rigging” and voter fraud. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. A comprehensive study by Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor, found that out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation occurred. And no presidential election has ever been won by such a small margin.

Still, Trump has called the election rigged on multiple occasions. Basically, Trump is inciting voters to question the results of an election upon which our democracy is based; almost half of voters believe there will be widespread voter fraud, according to a Politico poll. It gets scary super quickly; just read what these Trump supporters told a Boston Globe reporter:

Jeannine Bell Smith, 65, schoolteacher: “We’re going to have a lot of election fraud. They are having illegals vote. In some states, you don’t need voter registration to vote.”

Steve Webb, 61, carpenter from Ohio: “Trump said to watch your precincts. I’m going to go, for sure. I’ll look for…well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American. I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal. I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Dan Bowman, 50, contractor: “If [Hillary Clinton is] in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it. We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. But that’s what it’s going to take…I would do whatever I can for my country.”

(For the record, the Trump campaign said in a statement that they “reject violence in any form and will not allow it to be a part of our campaign.”)

I don’t really understand how someone can proclaim an election that hasn’t happened yet is definitively “rigged,” but let’s unpack these quotes anyways:

  • Once again, there isn’t any reliable evidence to support Smith’s claim that there will be “a lot of election fraud.” And you definitely need voter registration to vote in all fifty states. Also, the most basic requirement of voter eligibility is U.S. citizenship, so no, “illegals” will not be voting in the election.
  • Webb said he will “racially profile” people and “go right up behind them.” While he claims he’ll be doing everything legally, Webb has described what is most likely a classic case of voter intimidation. And, yes, voter intimidation is illegal.
  • Bowman has taken it a step further. While he doesn’t actually say he’ll participate in the “bloodshed” he describes happening if Clinton is elected president, his claims that she should be “shot” are chilling.

As much as I wish these people and their words were figments of my imagination, they’re not. Trump should be taking responsibility for feeding his supporters falsehoods that very likely had something to do with how riled up some of them are about the “rigged” election. I mean, they’re literally describing committing crimes against Clinton supporters!

I get that when you see someone as a reliable source of information, it can be easy to become complacent. You might start accepting their words as truth. But we live in an age when fact-checking is ridiculously easy — as long as you have access to the internet and understand how to determine the reliability of sources, you too can be a fact-checker. And fact-checking Trump has become even easier, with many news sources dedicating resources to specifically verifying the candidates’ claims.

I wish candidates weren’t allowed to get away with blatant lies, but the fact of the matter is that many of them have extremely loyal fan bases. So all we can do in the meantime is not accept things at face value, and speak up when someone says something you know isn’t true.

I’ll leave you with this “The Daily Show” video, in which correspondent Jordan Klepper interviews people at a Trump rally and humorously uses their own logic against them. It’ll probably cause amusement and frustration in equal parts.

Image: Gage Skidmore