Why should I pay for news?

A few things have happened in the last week that made me think deeply about the issue of paying for news.

Firstly, last Saturday, journalist Peter FitzSimons retweeted this from @WadeMatheson

“Best part of my Sat by @PeterFitz – I really should buy the SMH.”

Tweet re Peter Fitzsimons

Hackles raised.

Stay with me … there is a point.

The second thing that happened is that Week 5 in the course I’m teaching deals with copyright in the digital environment and I refreshed the lecture and engaged in class discussion with students about digital piracy and copyright.

I get a bit cranky and soapboxy during these discussions because I’m teaching students who want to work in the media, including journalism students, and many of the business models that supported making money in that environment have collapsed.

The third, and probably most important, thing that happened is that I watched Australian Story on ABC where Joanne McCarthy, that fabulous Walkley award winning journalist, talked about how she wrestled with appalling stories on child sexual abuse, and its cover up, in the Catholic Church.

Joanne wrote hundreds of articles over seven years to investigate that story, eventually winning the Gold Walkley in 2013 and kick starting a Royal Commission.

There is a strong aversion to paying for news, particularly among Millennials, so I’m asking this:

How would we have found out about the Catholic Church if Joanne had not been working for the Newcastle Herald?

The Herald is part of the Fairfax stable of publications and Fairfax, along with other publishers such as News Corp Australia, is struggling to make money. Crikey.com reported on documents* last week that showed News Corp Australia’s stable of publications is bleeding money – revenues from The Australian dropped 20% in the 2012-2013 financial year.

A paper I wrote last year with Professor Mark Balnaves showed that while Australians are engaging with online news sites, with ninemsn and smh.com.au receiving millions of hits, money is not following. Fairfax Media showed a drop in advertising revenue of almost 24% in its print products but an increase of only 4.8% in its digital products. Advertisers aren’t following the readers and there are a myriad of competitors for the advertising dollars that has traditionally paid for journalism.

There are researchers examining how journalism can be paid for in a world where many people expect to receive their news for nothing, and there are glimmers of business models working, such as subscription, single copy sales, single article sales, advertising, sponsorship, donations and non-profit funding (Bakker, 2012). But it’s still expensive to produce these deep, deep investigative pieces and where will that money come from?

So back to that tweet …

Of course, you should pay for your news! We wouldn’t expect a plumber to do their work for nothing, or a surgeon, or a solicitor, or a scientist.

Journalism is so important in finding out dark secrets in society and we wouldn’t find out those things if we didn’t have journalists like Joanne McCarthy and a publication financial enough to support this kind of investigation.

*This article is behind a paywall

8 Comments


  1. Is the gripe then with advertisers rather than readers? Before the internet, people were getting their news for free – watching it on the TV, listening to the radio or (like a lot of seniors at my local) reading the library’s copy. In all of those cases the journalist was still being paid, primarily funded by advertising dollars – given newspapers have never been profitable on cover price or subscriptions alone (and we’ve never paid for broadcast journalism – apart from satellite or cable news – are they suffering from the same issues?).

    In the case of books, the government recognises both the benefits and profit losses caused by places like libraries – the Public Lending Rights and the Education Lending Rights go some way for making up for that. Why isn’t the same being done for newspapers?

    Reply

    1. There are, of course, problems with advertisers not engaging as much with online news sites and there has been an enormous drop in revenue from advertisers but, with newspapers in particular, there seems to be an aversion to paying for news. While the cover price of newspapers didn’t cover costs, it was more difficult to get news for free than it is now and the news sites are getting millions of visitors who are happy to read the content for free.

      A big part of the problem, of course, is that that is the model news sites went with when they first went online and it is proving difficult to change the mindset of free news.

      Reply

  2. Like a lot of things it seems with us millennials, I think a degree of this may stem from our belief that news is an entitlement, as basic right if you will. Undoubtedly it is invaluable to society, but this belief in our right to it paradoxically creates the idea that it should not and will not be funded by ourselves, at least not directly.

    New adversing models are popping up, but like you mentioned, advertisers are reluctant to co-operate so heavily, and the money they are willing to spend is significantly less. People are more aware and dismissive of advertising these days, and as such producers are becoming more desperate and in-content advertising is becoming common. This growing lack of journalistic independence scares the freedom of the press in me.

    In response, donation services like the site Patreon keep independent news organisations running, but this cannot be sustainable for the breadth of journalism, and certainly such operations are similarly subject to their financial backers.

    Perhaps the answer may be more government funding through an acknowledgement of its public benefit, but that can’t be said to remove bias either.

    News is in a tough spot right now, and I don’t know how it will adapt to survive, but it must.

    Reply

    1. Some interesting points there, Nick. The idea of government funding has been raised on several occasions and we do have public broadcasters in Oz. But the argument made about government funding is that it flies in the face of freedom of the press and how can the press (which in this instance would include the media in general) uphold its role as the Fourth Estate if they are funded by one of the other Estates. Within this argument is what happens to the media if it is funded by the government and the example used is often China, where the media is merely a mouthpiece for the government.

      Reply

      1. How would you see the independence of the ABC and SBS, which are government funded and legislated (ostensibly fully controlled by the government)? The government regularly complain they are the harshest government critics and not on ‘team Australia’. Why can’t that same model be applied to the press? Are there factors here I’m not seeing? Why are the ABC and SBS only broadcast and not print (apart from ABC books, of course)?

        Reply

        1. It is important to have a mixture of public and private and the ABC and SBS have charters that are supposed to protect them from the control of the government of the day but of course each Government has put people on the ABC Board who have similar ideologies. I think it’s scary that there is that underlying threat of cutting funds, particularly to the ABC, because of supposed bias and the ABC not being part of ‘Team Australia’. In the Australian today, there was a story about the ABC’s Australia Network being replaced by a new channel being developed by Sky News, and it will be interesting to see how this develops and the differences between the ABC’s international offering and Sky’s (maybe a research project?). Here’s the link http://www.theaustralian.com.au/media/new-sky-channel-set-to-replace-abcs-australia-network/story-e6frg996-1227050759298?nk=2d07cfcc6ea60b666e2a082c32bf35da

          ABC also has a written version in ‘The Drum’.

          PS “Team Australia’ really bothers me

          Reply

          1. ‘Team Australia’ bothers me too. Especially the way politicians use it.

            The Drum’s rather more editorial/opinion-based than straight/investigative news, isn’t it? I’ve always wondered why they never did a straight print paper. In dollar terms, do you think it’d be more or less than a TV or radio station to run?


          2. Goodness, no idea! I know there’s licence fees, a fair amount of infrastructure and equipment, and it’s always been fairly labour intensive (cameraperson, director, floor crew, etc for TV, for example). There seems to be a romanticised idea about the Press with outcry whenever things such as licences are brought up. Broadcast is licenced and a licence can be removed (Alan Bond, for example) although there are some times when I wonder how far someone has to go before a station’s licence is suspended.

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