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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The economics of news | Digital subscriptions needed to support quality journalism | Seattle Times

In mid-March, The Seattle Times will launch a new digital-subscription plan for users of Print subscribers will continue to have unrestricted access.
I support the change announced in this Seattle Times column. It's unfortunate, but it's a practical, essential thing for this daily newspaper to do and other newspapers to consider doing. Some already are doing it. Like the noise from a tree falling in a forest, important things happen around us every day. But it costs money for newspapers to write and report the news about them. 

Writes Executive Editor David Boardman:
For those who don’t subscribe and who still want full access to our digital content, you’ll have the choice to either start a print subscription and receive full digital access (even a Sunday-only subscription will work) or to sign up for a new digital subscription. Both options will offer full access both to the website and to all Times digital offerings.
Those without a print or digital subscription will still be able to access on a limited basis. But if you visit the site repeatedly, you will ultimately encounter a barrier requiring enrollment.
Of course, we realize that nobody likes having to pay for something they’ve been receiving for free. But we believe that if you stop for just a moment to contemplate how important The Times is to the vitality and civility of the Puget Sound region, you might even feel good about your contribution to sustaining the content you value.
After posting those comments on my Facebook page today, I got some responses from Seattle-area friends questioning the quality of the Seattle Times. Rather than respond directly to them, I posted related thoughts I've had for quite awhile about news media trends.

Here are those thoughts:

As a former newspaper reporter and editor and as a former public information officer in local government, I know from experience that our news media--including the Seattle Times--do not always provide the most complete, most accurate, most fair and objective news coverage. Many built-in, new or changing factors contribute to that, some of them understandable if you thoroughly examine their cause, and some of them even repugnant.

News coverage in all mainstream media has gotten worse in the past couple of decades as scandal and celebrity have earned more ink and air-time, replacing continuing, in-depth reporting on the how and why--not just the who, what, where and when--of things happening in the institutions that affect us all. 

As important as the Watergate coverage was for unveiling the illegal, unethical actions of a presidential administration, it led partially to replacing a healthy skepticism of our government (by both the media and we the people) with a dysfunctional cynicism. I worked in the news biz during that time, and my idealism toward both government and the media was battered much. I eventually left it and moved into nonprofit and public-sector PR.

News coverage has also worsened because of the economics of the media: the loss or merger of independent, competing media; reduced local ownership of media outlets; reduction in advertising revenue as the news media lose audience to free Internet news; and increased consumer apathy and antipathy about any news coverage. Also, as corporate news empires have grown--and with them more interest in profits and less dedication to quality journalism--the media have become less of a watchdog on government and business, too often becoming a lapdog--despite the occasional investigative reports.

I noticed some of these changes when I returned to a government PIO position in the early 2000s after leaving one in the '80s; PIOs are typically the first contact between reporters and agency officials and staff. The local news media had shrunk in numbers and size. Fewer media and fewer reporters were covering government planning and actions regularly. Fewer beat reporters knew and understood the history, operations and issues of government. The decision-making of our elected and appointed government leaders and representatives was no longer reported consistently. Occasional "Woodward-Bernstein" investigative articles are not equal to or as valuable as regular, knowledgeable news coverage in helping readers know and understand what's happening in their local, state or national institutions.

Also, I learned through the years that the journalistic principles of "fair, balanced and objective" reporting are too often poorly taught or poorly understood and practiced by reporters and their editors. And, admittedly, I probably can fault myself as both a past journalist and journalism instructor in understanding those principles.

Equally important as those principles--if not more important--is the journalistic principle of accuracy. Our news media are obligated to achieve as much accuracy as possible--given the built-in limitations of time, space, and access to reliable information. But that principle also should require reporters and their editors to examine, evaluate and balance the accuracy of the statements and information provided by news sources. News sources too often tell lies or make misleading statements or don't provide all the key details. And the news media should report that behavior honestly as part of their news stories.

It is simply not true to say or believe that reporting two or more sides of a story, without reporting the accuracy of all statements, is being fair, balanced and objective.

All that said, I can't and won't condemn the work of all individual reporters and editors. Sure, there are incompetent or inexperienced journalists--and journalists for the mainstream media with hidden, unethical biases. PIOs aren't all perfect either. As with all of us in all of our work, journalists have limitations on the work they do. Those limits include the circumstances of their particular assignments or stories and the practice of journalism itself based on meeting deadlines, filling only so much air-time and newspaper space, and selecting only the information that's most interesting or most important to readers, viewers and listeners.

And that's why it's important for we the people--the consumers of news--to fulfill our responsibility to get our information from as many sources as possible. Unfortunately, that's harder to do these days as the mainstream media shrink. But we can find more and more information on the Internet, though I think we should be willing to pay for it (and I don't just mean paying Comcast or other Internet service providers).

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