Today I was able to attend one of the presentations that was a part of the First Amendment Forum on campus, put together by the SCSU Society of Professional Journalists, the Department of Mass Communications, the St. Cloud Times, and others. The topic of the presentation that I attended was “Protecting Journalism in the Era of Dying Newspapers and Social Networking.” Though the topic was about the death of newspapers and the rise of online content and social networking, most of the panelists discussed how they were using or had used social media to complement their writings as journalists, reporters, or editors. However, once the discussion was opened to those in attendance, the issue of the death of traditional media was brought up.
Namely, the issue of charging for online content was brought up. This issue is the same issue that I had addressed in an earlier blog post and letter to the University Chronicle. I didn’t bring it up, but I believe the person who did was the same person I wrote my post in response to (that is, Kyle Stevens). The person asked the panel what they thought about the media charging for online content.
A salient point that one of the panelists (Ramla Bile) brought up was that charging for the news online introduces some problems in that doing so bars certain people (namely the poor) from accessing the news. Bob Collins, who works for Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), said he really wished the Star Tribune would start charging people to read online content, because he believed doing so would drive more people to MPR. Adam Hammer of the St. Cloud Times likened it to the music industry, and the challenges they faced with the digitization of music and the piracy of said music. He explained how people became accustomed to listening to music through digital media, and it was Apple who recognized this and created iTunes to provide a legal channel through which people could access this digital music.
Of course, there’s the other side of this issue. The content wasn’t produced without a cost. How are the media supposed to make money if they can’t charge people to view their content? Both views are valid. We need to balance the ability to make a profit through producing important news and the necessity of not pricing people out of the market for this important news. In other words, we want people to get paid for doing good journalism, but we don’t want to bar people from accessing this journalism simply because they can’t afford it.
Some people might just respond that if people can’t afford something, they don’t deserve it. If you can’t pay for it, why should I give it to you? The problem with this argument, however, is that important news is not just another commodity to be bought and sold. The news, as I have always said, is a cornerstone of democracy. (In economics, it might be called a public good.) Scholars and political theorists have long recognized that a free and vibrant press is the foundation of civic society and liberal democracy. This is what differentiates online news from, say, online music in Hammer’s example. Music is important, yes, but not necessarily a requisite for a functioning democracy.
The question, thus, becomes whether we want to limit the dispersion of knowledge and important news or if we want to make it as free and vibrant as possible. This is where I disagree with Stevens. He believed we should charge for online content, which would have the effect of pricing people out of the market for important news. As I said, though, we need to consider the fact that the content was not produced for free and there is a certain necessity to generate a revenue to at least cover the costs of making such important news available. The suggestion I made, basing my argument off the work of Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism, was that there be a public subsidy for independent journalism. Both McChesney and Nichols present several convincing arguments in support of their case. A public subsidy for independent (that is, not corporate) news would solve the aforementioned balancing issue; the cost of producing important news would be paid for, and accessing this content would be kept free, allowing for the greatest number of people to access vital information.