Free Internet news! Free! (But at what cost?)

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 (” 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.

10 replies »

  1. Dear God. It scares me that journalism students are essentially going to school to learn how to be corporate mouthpieces these days.

    Again, I’m showing my naivete but why aren’t these papers doing NPR style pledge drives? Why aren’t these papers making paypal type donation addresses common knowledge? I would gladly donate to these major news sources if they made it easier to do so. Maybe I’m dumb, but I have a feeling a lot of people with at least a little disposable income understand the value of what they provide and want to do their part; but I’ll be damned if they don’t make it hard for me to do so. I am the internet generation. Get in my face. Everyone else does!

    Glad to see you on here again. I really missed your posts!

  2. I’m ready to pay or subscribe to a service. Should I be unable to afford it, I’ll be sad, but I’ll accept that’s the way it has to be.

  3. Why should we care about newspapers? or for that matter, any organized media organization that was entrusted by us to tell us the TRUTH, and hence, decided to do the corporatist thing and LIE TO US ABOUT THE PAST 46 YEARS OF U.S. HISTORY.

    so, I ask, who the hell cares if they fold? I don’t. I am tired of watching bullshit, lies, and info-tainment on the ‘lobotomizer’ that sits in most living rooms and occupies the walls in most bars.

    let them die. really. I think it’s time to say that we can find our own news on the web, we don’t need it force fed to us with pablum. Screw the papers and the media outlets, they made their beds. let them lay in them. Bye Bye, MSM. BYE!!!! good riddance!!! adios!!!

  4. “What kind of business model allows me to consume a product for free?”

    The kind that has no printing costs, and sells ads like a newspaper does.

    How is that buggy whip stock doing Dinosaur?

  5. It will indeed be a shame if the print media disappears. They are the ones who employ all the people that most blogs link to. Will all bloggers now go out and dig up any info or do reporting on their own? I doubt it unless they are the really big blogs with the big important names. But even one big one that comes to mind, is mainly all pro democratic political postings. What else is a shame is that now no one looks at news as news anymore, in political matters anyway, unless it is through the political prism of which party you belong to. Nobody wants to hear an opposing view anymore and in reading the blog posts by people either at individual blog sites or major paper’s online sites, it is always now the same constant theme – always attack the messenger and avoid the message. It appears that the major thrust is to demean any other poster who doesn’t agree with you. And in all honesty, even though my husband and I are both liberals, it is the democrats who seem to be the more demeaning doing exactly what they said they hated republicans for doing. Who is going to be left to cover all the “non political” news? What happens if you are not in a situation to own a computer or afford the internet? I think a lot of papers are in trouble because people have stopped buying them if they feel they aren’t loyal to their political ideals. If they don’t print only for good things about their party or candidate etc., then they are no good, or biased. In reality too many times, the article isn’t biased but the reader is. Anyway, that’s my opinion.