Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Death of the journalist

Dr Steven Novella, at Skepticblog, asked the question: Is journalism dead? and naturally I can't help putting in my two cents' worth.
I agree with Dr Novella, that the internet is changing the way we learn about news, and the sources we choose to obtain it from. This is the future, and we need to strap in for the long haul and ride out the transition. However, I'm sure there were similar complaints when both radio news and television news first came on the scene, so reports of my death are exaggerated.
Publishers have a bottom-line-driven attitude to their output. Advertising has always been the main revenue source, and editorial is valued only as the stuff that fills the space between the ads. These days, it is often bastardised by tacit "advertorial" content (that's a whole different kettle of fish that I'll save for another rant), or produced on a shoestring by overworked journalists trying to find a balance between the good reporting that their personal standards demand, and the lack of time and resources to do it properly.
Nevertheless, publishers will all agree that good editorial draws in more readers, thereby attracting more advertising dollars. This is where I want to put the spotlight back on readers: do you really care about good journalism?
Let me ask the question this way: how much are you prepared to pay for a newspaper or even a website that delivers really good quality journalism? One hundred years ago, a newspaper cost between about threepence and sixpence. (For the sake of argument and decimal currency, we'll say five cents.) A quick conversion to today's relative value reveals that the modern equivalent, based on the average unskilled wage, would be more than $5.00. How much do you pay for your newspaper? My home-delivery subscription costs less than a dollar per day, and the internet edition is free.
The main effect of the cheapness (or free-ness) of news sources is insidious. It's a well-known marketing adage that you don't value something you can get for free (or cheaply). YOU don't expect your internet news source to be accurate, you just want it to be timely. YOU don't care if Pauline Hansen's racist policies have changed, as long as we find out if those nudie photos are really her (see the front page of today's Sydney Morning Herald). If you had to pay a fairer rate for it, would you be more picky about what you read?
Dr Novella asked the question, and so do I: what business model can we develop that will allow journalists to make a decent living out of doing a good job? I'm no economist, but I think that at least part of the answer is in the readers. If YOU demand the truth, and are prepared to pay for it, we'll all be able to eat tomorrow.

(Come back in a few days for my rant on advertorials: another economic rationalist reason why good journalism is in decline.)

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