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Mares: The cost of news

03/18/09 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST)  Commentator Bill Mares is a former legislator, teacher and reporter, who has been thinking about the changing economics of journalism and why "free" news on the Internet comes with a price.

(MARES) In 1900, when the press barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were battling each other over newspaper circulation and New York City had 15 dailies, The Atlantic Monthly magazine observed: "The two cardinal responsibilities of the literary life in the newspaper day are namely - crowding eternity into five minutes [and then] getting anyone to take five minutes to notice that eternity."
 
But if newspaper publishing was challenging back then, it is even more so now, with far more competition for reader attention and reader dollars.  The last few years have been plague years for newspapers. Some, like the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, have simply disappeared.  Others have cut staff down to the bone and beyond. The venerable Christian Science Monitor has gone digital, while headlines and photos have grown larger in papers ranging from regionals like the Burlington Free Press to giants like the New York Times.

Other forces are at work here, too - a rotten economy; the flight of big advertising revenue for cars, housing and personals to free sites like Craig’s List; the rise of weeklies; and new electronic venues like the Front Page Forum in Burlington.
             
Then there are the changing public attitudes.  Some people say, why should we care about newspapers, this print version of the 'main stream media'?  We have YouTube. We have Facebook.  We have our own blogs or those of others who agree with us.  And if we need to know any news, we’ll  get it off the Internet, for free!

This kind of remark makes Chuck Lewis apoplectic.  Chuck is an old reporter friend of mine from Chicago. He also happens to be the Washington bureau chief of the Hearst newspaper chain.  He points out that the so-called free news people get off the Internet most likely comes by way of links to the much maligned 'main stream media' - that same 'main stream media' that financially supports the journalistic efforts of the ground troops of journalism: reporters.

These reporters write the first drafts of history; they tell both sides of the story.    

Newspapers are at the top of the news chain.  They make the major financial investments that internet news efforts - especially bloggers - depend on and frequently exploit.

The fallacy that on-line news is free undermines not only the journalism business, but our civic fabric as well.  If no one will pay a reporter to sit through the local zoning board hearing, how will we know who voted to allow the building height variance?  And why.    

As James Surowiecki wrote recently in the New Yorker magazine, "For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime - intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on - and the low costs of the new one.  But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is."
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