Let’s support real news

This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 16, 2010.

Let’s support real news

Outlets ought to charge consumers as cable TV does now

Mike Dillon
Feb 16, 2010

Imagine you are a farmer. You invest in land, seed, equipment and labor. The overhead is tremendous but your crop grows true. Then, at harvest time, a pack of freebooting strangers charges across your land, harvests your crop, sells it at market and kicks back not a cent. To subsist, you gather up what stray stalks remain and sell them by the roadside.

This is the current business model of American journalism.

While traditional news outlets struggle or even fold, as the Rocky Mountain News did in 2009, Google and other Web-based “content providers,” along with their partners in larceny, the Internet service providers, watch their profits soar.

Traditional news outlets don’t struggle and fail because demand for their product has slackened — if anything, demand is a thousand-fold greater than it was during the Watergate-era heyday of American journalism. They fail because they receive a dramatically diminishing return on their capital-intensive investments. A reputable news operation spends money on reporters, photographers, editors, designers, travel, technology, distribution, etc., to get and deliver the news. These things are not cheap.

In an age of terror, chronic war, greed, economic collapse and climate change, we need authentic, thorough, discerning journalism — as opposed to local “Action News,” outraged cable pundits, conspiracy bloggers and Nancy Grace (who in the next life will surely serve as greeter at the gates of Hell) — more than ever.

Alas, circulation and ad revenue plummet because the public will not spend money for what it can seemingly get for free.

Here’s the problem: The public does not get journalism for free. Rather, instead of paying the Post-Gazette or CBS or The Wall Street Journal or Newsweek or The New Republic or The Nation, consumers pay Google (indirectly, via ad revenues) and ISPs like Comcast and Verizon (directly, via a fee structure).

A study released by the Pew Foundation in January found that “most of what the public learns is still overwhelmingly driven by traditional media — particularly newspapers.” But if newspapers continue to decline, pretty soon the public won’t get any actual journalism at all, just its bombastic doppelgangers that crowd cable and the Web.

My monthly bill for bundled cable and broadband Internet service (via Comcast) exceeds $100 per month. What do I get for my money? About 100 cable channels (I watch about a dozen) and unlimited Web access to local, national and international news and entertainment, along with a Texas-sized mass of free-floating e-junk.

On my custom Google page, I have instant access to headlines from around the globe, produced at great cost by news outlets that will never get so much as a nickel from me.

It doesn’t make sense.

The NFL Network and The News Corp., owner of Fox, get it. Confident in the quality of their product and public demand for it, they have set a price and told the cable companies that if they want a share of the harvest they will have to pay up and pass what costs the market will bear on to their customers. Ironically, with its pending purchase of NBC, Comcast is poised to do the same thing to rival cable systems.

Fox has a particularly powerful hand to play in the new media mix. Only a last-minute compromise prevented Fox from yanking big-ticket college bowl games off cable systems last month.

The New York Times is trying to get it — starting in 2011 news grazers will get only so much free content and then be charged a subscription fee to gain access to more.

Too little, too late, too piecemeal.

Traditional news organizations would do better to create a collaborative and standardized model of revenue collection or resign themselves to going the route of the great passenger railroads — revered in cultural memory but nowhere to be found. By demanding that ISPs and gigantic Web portals pay for the privilege of delivering or linking to quality content, we could return to a system of civic equity and economic sanity in the information marketplace.

Here’s how it would work: Consumers would pay for Internet access the way they pay for cable. They could select tiered packages that suit their tastes, needs and interests. For $75, say, you could get all local Web media (including TV- and print-based sites), 10 premium national and international news outlets, ESPN and Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek, and your choice of 25 to 30 more esoteric, high-quality content-rich sites (such as the National Review or Harper’s, that represent a significant investment in talent and resources). Tack on The Daily Beast, YouTube, Legal Insurrection and Craig’s List for good measure.

All of the junk currently on the Internet — amateur blogs, personal home pages, etc. — could still be accessed for free. Producers of content for which there is little demand would lack leverage to demand payment, and legislation ensuring fair access and carrying privileges to all content producers will keep the Internet open and diverse. Fee-based sites (genealogy, dating and yes, sadly, porn) would be unaffected and might even produce significant ad revenues for tiered sites.

With a limited anti-trust exemption, the news organizations could combine to create a copyright squad. No more free links. Everybody pays.

For consumers, the cost would remain about the same because, instead of paying an ISP like Verizon just to provide Internet access, they would pay a content provider like Comcast for access and a certain level of content, as they do now for cable TV.

Individuals still could create customized Web packages, and the collective good would be served by ensuring that the companies and people who produce quality journalism are fairly compensated. Without that compensation, the quantity and quality of real journalism will continue to dwindle — along with our civic capital and prospects for rationally navigating a complex and dangerous world.

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