I expect the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper I’ve long admired, to go belly up — even though I have no specific information about its finances and whether it is, indeed, in danger of folding.
But this week, it gave its product to me for free. I would have gladly paid up to 5 cents to read just one of its stories. But the JS didn’t charge me. What kind of business model allows me to consume a product for free?
I learned of the story through an e-mailed version of Romenesko, the legendary (or infamous, depending on your POV), media news page at Poynter. org, the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.
The Poynter e-mail contained this tease: “Wisconsin university football coach bans student reporters (http://www.jsonline.com/business/43539347.html).” I clicked on the link and —ta da — there it was, a story written by JS reporter Don Walker. Free. Didn’t have to pay a penny. And I would have. Gladly.
I know this isn’t a rare phenomenon. I suspect you’ve read news for free online, too. Bet you kinda expect it to be free, even demand that it be free. Perhaps you think it’s some kind of birthright. But in the long run, if you do not pay for the product of professional journalists, you will lose one of your best defenses against secrecy, corruption, and tyranny.
Those who wish to keep information from you, those who demand or offer kickbacks and bribes to get what they want, those who wish to secretly manipulate the levers of power unfairly for selfish financial advantage, those who wish to attain and maintain power over you … they’re winning. They’re winning because fewer and fewer journalists are keeping an eye on them, holding them accountable for their words and actions. Remember, that’s the deal the Founders gave the press: Hold government accountable, and we’ll protect you from government intervention.
If you don’t pay for the product produced by professional journalists who cover the “eat-your-spinach” stories bloggers don’t, won’t, or can’t, then don’t complain if the powerful and influential take advantage of the lack of scrutiny formerly provided by the 5,900 journalists who lost their jobs last year.
In 1990 America’s daily newspapers had 56,900 staffers, very close to the historical high, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Newspapers were cash cows for investors, with profits north of 20 percent. In 2000, the population of journalists at dailies was still high — 56,400. Then the Internet came, folks say, and stole all the advertising revenue. Profit margins have been halved — as revenue has dropped precipitously. (Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Apparently, bad management and arrogance had much to do with the decline of circulation, and hence the declining advertising revenue, of daily newspapers. In effect, corporate newspaper management shot itself in the foot as it bad-mouthed the Internet as an irrelevant upstart.)
To attempt to maintain the profitability of that now-highly suspect business model, newspaper managements whacked jobs — the very jobs that produce the product those executives presumably want to sell. This has to be among the dumbest responses to economic stress in corporate history.
At the end of 2008, only 46,700 journalists were left at the America’s daily newspapers. 2009 is off to a rough beginning: The Web site Paper Cuts reports that about 8,500 newspaper staffers (including journalists) have been laid off or bought out as of mid-April. (Paper Cuts is a Web site by Erica Smith, who has been tracking newspaper layoffs since 2007.) It is possible that by 2010, the number of daily print journalists will have been halved in only a decade.
Surely that’s not a positive development for the democratic health of the Republic.
Interestingly, the nation’s premier journalism graduate programs are seeing marked increases in applications: Columbia, up 38 percent; Stanford, 20 percent; and NYU, 6 percent. But these new students are not necessarily seeking to become journalists. Says Jim O’Brien, director of Northwestern University’s Medill Career Services office:
Corporate communications is a growth area in terms of opportunities for jobs for our MSJ grads. Both corporations and nonprofits who are interested in communications, where they had typically looked at an English major before, are now thinking that a journalism grad might have leg up on those candidates because of their training.
This is a two-pronged blow to “eat-your-spinach” news. First, newspapers are shedding the very people trained —and paid — to do that. Second, former journalists and others are seeking graduate journalism degrees to become corporate communicators.
That means fewer professionally trained and experienced journalists are digging for information corporations and governments wish to hide, and more smart people are being trained — and, eventually, paid handsomely — to do the hiding.
They’re winning. Democracy is losing. Please consider that next time you read a news story online — for free. It may be, in the long run, a very costly read.