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.
Still, 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.