We need to pay more for journalism. A lot more.
I’m going to say a few obvious things, and then then a few unobvious things, about the business model for news publishing.
Obvious thing #1: One of the most consequential facts of the Internet age is that news content has become free of charge. We all watched in morbid fascination in the 1990s and 00s when news came out from behind paywalls. What will this do to the business model? we wondered. How will news publishers survive and flourish?
Obvious thing #2: None of them flourished, and many didn’t survive. One of the worst industries to get into these days is journalism. Major news organizations have never stopped hemorrhaging jobs. I feel sorry for my journalist friends, and I’m glad there are some who still have jobs. There are quite a few desperate journalists out there; I don’t blame them.
Obvious thing #3: There are two main business models for news publishing: advertising and subscription. I’m not familiar with the statistics, but it seems obvious that most news that is read is supported by advertising. Note, I don’t say that most money that is made, or the best news available, comes from advertising. I’m just saying that if you add up all the news pageviews supported by ads, and compare it to the news pageviews supported by subscriptions, you’d find a lot more of the former.
I’m done boring you with the obvious. Now something perhaps a little less obvious: Desperate journalists, whose jobs depend on sheer pageviews because that’s how you pay the bills, are desperate to write clickbait. Standards have gone out the window because standards don’t pay the bills. Objectivity and fact-checking are undervalued; speed and dramatic flair are “better” because they drive traffic and save jobs. But even this is pretty much just the conventional wisdom about what’s going on in journalism. It’s very sad.
If you look at the line of reasoning above, however, you might notice something remarkable. At least, it struck me. It is the simple fact that the news is free of charge that led almost inevitably to a decline in standards. This lowering of standards has even affected more serious reporting that can only be found behind paywalls, in my opinion.
I remember keynoting a publishers’ conference in 2007, and many people were asking: “The Internet is threatening our business models. How do we solve this problem?” I suppose they thought I’d have a bright idea because I had managed to build something interesting on a shoestring; but I didn’t have any. Since then, as far as I can see, news publishing hasn’t gotten any farther along. I haven’t had or encountered any fantastic new ideas for getting journalists paid to do excellent work.
As long as the business of journalism is paid for by ads, it won’t be journalism.
It will be clickbait.
If you want to support real journalism, with real standards, consider subscribing to a publication that you think practices it, or comes as close to it as possible. It’s on us, the public.
But that’s lame. You thought I was going to stop there? If so, you don’t really know me. Journalism never was very good. Standards have dropped, that’s for sure; but we should look back and recognize that they never were terribly high in the first place. What we really need are journalists who recognize just how elusive the entire, nuanced truth really is. (Maybe require them to have had a few philosophy courses.) And we need publishers who demand not just good traditional journalism but neutrality, in the sense I defined in an essay (“Why Neutrality?”):
A disputed topic is treated neutrally if each viewpoint about it is not asserted but rather presented (1) as sympathetically as possible, bearing in mind that other, competing views must be represented as well, and (2) with an equitable amount of space being allotted to each, whatever that might be.
This standard, it turns out (as laid out in my paper), is pretty hard-core. But following it would solve many of the problems we’ve had. The extra work meeting such a high standard would cost more to produce. But I think enough people care enough about their own intellectual autonomy that they would pay a significant premium for truly neutral news reporting with unusually high standards, above and beyond the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.
I know I would.