In life, you get what you pay for, right? So why don’t we apply that to the news?
Whether you need to pay the publishing costs of a print product or not, paying for journalists and giving them the time, resources and support to find and write stories bears a cost. Yet we live in an age in which we expect the fruits of their labour to be handed over for nothing. News is something that is just there, ready at your fingertips whenever and wherever you want it. It’s available and disposable.
In many ways, of course, media outlets have themselves to blame. People have had free news online for long enough to expect it and attempts to completely fund those efforts through advertising haven’t worked.
The early days of the web and social media in local journalism
Back when I was a reporter, there was a whiff of the Wild West when it came to our attitude to the web and social media. Our team of reporters were given free reign to set up social accounts and run amok. Editors and senior management knew we had to be on these platforms but they knew nothing about how they worked.
Given that they were new, neither did we. Egged on by eager editors, we tried all sorts of things: chased clicks and hits, had some fun and probably did some things we shouldn’t.
It was addictive too. Online, we could tread new ground, reach a new audience and see instant results from our labour. In a tough market where many people were all-too-ready to remind you that sales were better back in their day, this was the chance to do something positive and make a name for yourself.
Over time, analytics and basic Search Engine Optimisation came into the equation a little more. At the start, the only SEO advice I heard was ‘see if you can get Manchester United or Doctor Who in a headline.’ By the time I left we’d built up a bank of knowledge about what did and didn’t work when it came to times, types of content, wordings for social posts etc.
When I worked for the Boston Standard, we were the first paper of our size in the Johnston Press stable to have an iPad app. That came as a result of the hard work we’d done to secure more clicks than rival titles that, on paper (in both senses), should have been way ahead of us. That was a source of pride; yet the app itself was completely free to download and use, had no ads on it and allowed the user to access the whole paper for free. Another reason, were it needed, not to part with any hard-earned pennies for a print copy.
The web and social media provided new products and more work. Producing a paper is not the same as running a website and so newsrooms had to adapt. Yet, that did mean stretching resources thinner and thinner at a time when manpower was being reduced. It was something of a self-defeating cycle. As fewer people tried to do more things, the quality of what we produced reduced. In turn, that made it harder to justify sales or to reach the maximum potential online. If sales suffered, more cuts ensued and the cycle continued.
In an attempt to maximise advertising revenue, many online news sites are near enough unreadable. A poor user experience just gives readers another reason not to return, or at least ask the question ‘is this even worth paying for?’ In some places, freelancers and photographers are ripped off and expected to provide their expertise for ‘exposure’ or minimal fees.
The danger of ‘free news’
Reaching for a small violin? I can understand why some people might not be able to find much sympathy, yet the end result creates a democratic deficit. Courts, councils, police and schools aren’t always able to be covered with the rigour that’s required for a healthy system.
We’ve all started to see what happens when people don’t value the news. If any conspiracy theorist website or low-rent Facebook gossip forum can command the same attention as a news outlet, then readers will struggle to filter out the nonsense from the reality. That leads to an erosion of trust, increases indifference and raises the risk of corruption. That’s the real cost of ‘free’ news.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Many publishers are trying new ways to redress the balance and some of these are working. There are some cracking journalists doing some great work and there’s no way that I want to be a ‘back in my day’ bore. In that Wild West era we were right to try to take the news to a place where readers wanted it, especially to try to reach younger people. Raging against the rise of digital is about as much use as denying the existence of electricity. It’s just a shame that we’ve left a problem to solve.
I intend to have a closer look at some other attempts to get readers to pay for the news they receive – from paywalls to subscriptions and ‘local democracy reporters’ – in future posts. I’d welcome any examples from readers that are working – or ideas that they feel have been under-explored.
In the meantime, I live in hope that we can at least stop the naïve belief that free news is healthy for readers and journalists alike.