ANGLES: Should the news be free?

ANGLES: Should the news be free?

Thanks to the internet, journalists, like anyone in the field of mass communications, have had to change the way that they do their job.

The internet is now one of the main ways that people  read, watch and generally engage with the news. According to the Pew Research Center, 86% of adults in the U.S. access the news from a computer, smart phone or tablet and only 32% actively access it from print newspaper.

The problem for journalists is that people are increasingly less willing to pay for news.

Jennifer Hoewe and Brett Sherrick theorize in their article for Fortune Magazine that this unwillingness may have something to do with Americans’ trust of news outlets being at an all-time low. People are much quicker to jump to skepticism of the media than they have been in the past.

At the same time, journalism remains as necessary as ever in its role as the government’s “watchdog.”

And quality journalism still has a cost involved, even when there is no physical print issue to be produced. Beyond the price of the outlet’s domain and other basic production costs, journalists still need to be paid for their work.

So, is it even possible for the news to remain free as people have begun to expect? And if it is, would it compromise the quality of journalism as a whole?

Other revenue options are worth exploring
By: Kat Elgersma

There’s little that makes me want to throw my computer down a flight of stairs more than a paywall.

I suppose that’s a side effect of having grown up in the information age. I’ve never paid for my news. I was used to it being freely available to me. Even now when I encounter a paywall, I roll my eyes and start looking elsewhere for what I need.

I understand the merit of subscription. Having been a student journalist for my past two years on the Mirror staff, I’ve gained a new perspective on just how much work truly goes into every story. Of course I want journalists to be fairly compensated for their work, and the easiest way to get paid for your work is to charge people for it.

I can also understand that paying for news has been the standard almost from journalism’s very beginnings. Historically, that cost was relatively low, of course. The penny press doesn’t get its name from nowhere.

I also understand that reform is necessary if the field of journalism is to survive. Journalists need something more to live off of than idealism and the philosophy of the fourth estate.

At the same time, it’s worth exploring other sources of funding.

The radical in me dreams of freedom of information being the standard. Just four months ago in this very publication, I wrote words that I meant with all my heart: “It’s a rather beautiful idea that anyone who has the time and interest to learn about something — anything — could have access to that information at little to no cost through the free exchange of information.” I return to those words now.

The barrier to knowledge should never be wealth. I want that to be true, even if I know that it’s not.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in my reluctance to pay for news. A Dutch study found that people, old and young alike, are generally unwilling to pay for news subscriptions. For participants in the study, the cost was preventative in some way. They had access to the information for free elsewhere, they worried about the long term cost, or they needed the money to go elsewhere.

The study also indicated that young people in particular might be more interested in a digital subscription similar to Netflix or Spotify where one would have access to multiple news sources at one cost and in one place. Apple News already essentially provides this service.

There is also the “freewill donation” avenue, or public funding. This is the ideal situation for journalism, though publicly funded news tends to get less attention than commercial news networks in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, from 2016 to 2020, the highest average viewership that PBS NewsHour achieved was a little less than 2 million. During the same time period, NBC, CBS and ABC — all commercially funded networks — each averaged viewership well over 4 million.

Journalism is, historically, an idealistic field. It aims to inform the populace, from the very wealthy to the very poor. However, if there are large groups of people that find the price of subscription prohibitive, it is impossible to achieve that goal.

Effective news needs subscription
By: Slater Dixon

On Oct. 4, 2017, the front page of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader was completely blank, except for the words “Imagine a world without local news.”

At the time, I thought this stunt was whiny and melodramatic. The Argus has been a staple of the South Dakota media landscape for generations — it seemed like the kind of institution that would be around forever.

Like water comes from a faucet, I sometimes feel like news reporting should just happen and always be paid for by someone else. Unfortunately, it’s become unclear who that someone else should be.

In many places, the answer to funding problems has been hedge funds that buy up decaying newspapers and bleed them dry. It’s been nonprofit newsrooms with shaky — or shady — funding. It’s been billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet and Glen Taylor. The answer, in whatever form it takes, is almost always terrifying.

It’s not that things would have been perfect if everyone had simply paid the $150 or more a year for a subscription to their local paper. In reality, there’s no use in fetishizing a relatively brief period of time when journalists did “hard news” and “told it as it is.” And although it’s not very trendy, there are many reasons to cheer the rise of decentralized, democratized news gathering.

Eugene Volokh predicted the digital age would foster a new generation of “cheap speech” in which traditional gatekeepers — prestige newspapers, record labels, magazines — would be displaced by a varied, diverse landscape of new voices.

Indeed, the internet has allowed for experimentation with a wide range of journalistic business models. Despite the challenges, it’s a pretty exciting time for local journalism in South Dakota, with the South Dakota Searchlight, the Dakota Scout and Sioux Falls Simplified experimenting with journalistic models completely new to the state.

As always, people have strong feelings about these local publications — I find the Scout’s contrarian posturing particularly aggravating. Meanwhile, the Argus is six beat reporters strong and still turning out vital coverage.

The internet hasn’t erased the costs of high quality beat reporting, thorough investigative journalism and complicated stories. National outlets, even those with local presences, can’t offset the cumulative effect of hundreds of local newspapers closing their doors. We cannot lament our descent into a “post-truth era” while shrugging off the notion that we are, to some extent, financially responsible for supporting genuine truth-seeking efforts.