Who will pay for journalism?

Photo by Thomas Charters on Unsplash

Answer: you, dear reader. And everybody else.

The root of this post lies within the saga currently playing out at The Los Angeles Times, which is expected to be sold to one of the shareholders of its Chicago-based parent company, Tronc.

Before this, journalists at the LA Times overwhelming voted to form a union, the publisher was put on leave and the newspaper got a new editor. (This was about when I started wondering what was going on in Los Angeles.)

The unionization vote occurred a little while after it was revealed in December 2017 company filings that Tronc would pay a company controlled by its chairman, Michael Ferro, $5 million annually for the next three years.

LA Times journalists sharply criticized the company for saying the business environment was challenging and declining to invest further in the LA Times newsroom.

While this might demonstrate that Tronc executives were confused at best and disingenuous at worst about the state of the news publishing company’s finances, it’s unfortunately true that, industry-wide, revenues have fallen and keep dropping.

Newspapers’ circulation revenue climbs steadily even as advertising declines. Source: Pew Research Center.

This is a well-worn narrative today, extensively reported by media journalists (journalists who report about journalism — I know, I know) and espoused by working journalists, student journalists and professors of journalism alike.

Advertising revenues are down, circulation revenues are down, and digital revenues haven’t filled in the difference.

Despite subscription surges for largest U.S. newspapers, circulation and revenue fall for industry overall

But journalism remains expensive.

The cost of creating a mass media product — the vehicle of information — has sharply fallen, as printing a newspaper costs thousands of dollars per print run, while a website can handle a medium amount of traffic for no more than $50 a year.

We haven’t yet reached a point where technological innovations can replace human journalists.

Artifical intelligence systems now write many business earnings stories, but we’re still years away from an AI system capable of sifting through hundreds of pages of unstructured text, create and follow up on Freedom of Information Act requests, understand organizational structures and social context, determine a news event’s relevance to and impact on communities, notice what isn’t being said, write with sensitivity and awareness for bias and be able to discern truth from falsehood, fact from opinion and understatement from hyperbole.

So journalists are still humans, and we need to be fed, loved and appreciated. And paid.

The money to pay journalists has to come from somewhere. As far as the living memory of this generation of journalists extends, that money used to come from advertisements.

We printed a newspaper that many people read. You were a business that wanted to attract the attention of those people, as they might be (or become) your customers. You came to us, said “I’d like to attract the attention of your fine readers” and gave us money. We printed your advertisement alongside the news stories written by journalists paid from the money you gave us.

That worked for a long time.

Then the Internet happened, then one thing led to another, then advertising money started flowing to Google and Facebook. (“One thing led to another” skips over a bunch of history, but that’s for another post.)

The stream of advertising revenue dried up, and it got harder and harder to find the money to pay for all the journalists.

The publications that still remain — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, to name a few — earn a fraction of what they once did. Others, such as the Rocky Mountain News, have shuttered.

New publications have appeared as the Internet took over: BuzzFeed is the perhaps best-known, but Gawker and Vox also didn’t exist twenty years ago. We’ve also seen the emergence of nonprofit news publications, such as The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, who take the public service mission of journalism to the extent of ditching the profit motive altogether.

This period was also marked by the emergence of click-bait, the style of headline writing designed to entice readers to click through to an article: “21 Ways You Didn’t Realize You Were Annoying Your Servers and Bartenders,” “Which Swimsuit Matches Your Personality?” and “Build An Outfit And We’ll Reveal Which Iconic Decade Boyfriend You’ll Have.” (Apparently, Elvis Presley.)

But producing journalism remains as expensive as it always did, and publications are beginning to realize that they need to find a new way to pay for it.

If we were in the United Kingdom, we would already have a solution, if imperfect: the BBC is paid for by the licence fee, a tax on television sets determined by the government that is (eventually) appropriated to the editorially independent public service broadcaster.

The United States, however, has an aversion to the use of taxation power to finance the news media, deriving either from the nation’s supposed aversion to government institutions or a widespread belief that editorial independence is best served by financial independence. Either way, government funding is seen as a bad thing, and so news publications have to turn elsewhere to pay for their work.

If we can’t go to businesses and we can’t go to the government, we might be able to ask the country’s richest to pay for the public service of watchdog journalism. The Washington Post, for example, benefited from the financial might of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who coughed up $250 million of his own money to buy the then-fledging legacy newspaper in 2013.

But not every member of the US’s richest elite are going to want a potentially unprofitable media company, and owners interested in intruding upon the editorial affairs of the newsroom will lose the trust and quality of the publication’s journalists very quickly.

So: if we can’t go to businesses, we can’t go to the government, and we can’t go to the rich owners, then how can we pay for journalism?

We have to turn to the people we serve: our readers.

This might have been unfathomable twenty or thirty years ago, but The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian are now all asking their readers to pay for their journalism.

A screenshot of the end of a Guardian article. The Guardian now appends a panel asking for contributions to its articles online and in its mobile apps. The UK-based publication does not have a paywall. Screenshot from theguardian.com.

The Guardian has not erected a paywall, but instead includes a plea for contributions throughout its website and mobile apps. The New York Times scaled back its online paywall in December 2017 to allow non-subscribers five free articles per month, down from ten articles previously, although the Times has lifted its paywall temporarily for coverage of significant events of public concern.

This approach might have been borne of necessity, but it’s also a good thing. If news publications can’t receive government funding because of concerns over editorial independence when covering government, it’s fair to argue that they also can’t receive money from businesses they cover.

Newspapers have supposedly addressed this issue historically with the separation of “church and state” by dividing the operations of the newsroom from the business office. But the question still remains, and it’s a valid one: if The New York Times prints an ad from Proctor & Gamble, is it possible its coverage of the Tide Pods Challenge would be a little less critical than it otherwise would have been because Tide is a P&G brand?