News is cheap. Take the news item you’re reading right now — an op-ed, to be exact. It likely cost you nothing to access because while CT News Junkie welcomes financial sponsors and voluntary subscribers, it has no paywall. And that’s good news for you, right? You’re simply mirroring a societal trend where people increasingly seek “free” news — especially local news — via Google and Facebook.
“Nearly as many Americans today say they prefer to get their local news online as say they prefer to do so through the television set,” according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. “The 41% of Americans who say they prefer getting their local news via TV and the 37% who prefer it online far outpace those who prefer a printed newspaper or the radio.”
“So what’s the big deal?” you ask. “Why shouldn’t I get my news for free?”
Short answer: Because if nobody pays for news, there will soon be little news left to consume.
“People may want their news free, but it is not free to gather,” writes Paul Choiniere, editorial page editor of The Day of New London. “Journalists are professionals, their jobs challenging. They must be well informed on numerous subjects. They must know what information to gather, where to find it, and how to use open-government laws to get at it when public officials try to hide it.”
“It’s a job,” adds Choiniere. “And like any job, they deserve to get paid,” a situation that is less likely to continue if consumers exclusively “Google” their local news.
The technology company Parse.ly last year tracked “referral traffic data from more than a million articles on the internet” and discovered that “Google search now accounts for 46 percent of all major referral traffic, followed by Facebook (29 percent).”
In addition, Facebook last year launched an app called “Today In” that provides users with personalized local news. An informal survey by NiemanLab found the typical content available in Facebook’s Today In section woefully lacking.
“To see what sort of news it was surfacing, I tracked Today In’s stories for 10 different cities over a Monday-Friday period,” writes Nieman’s Christine Schmidt. “What did I see? Satire, obituaries from funeral home websites, lots of local TV, and a weird network of sites that scrape other local news and yet somehow make it into Facebook’s scanner. And again, over half of the news was just crime, courts, and dead bodies.”
Adds Schmidt, “The value of local journalism comes through active reporting that shows residents how they can be a member of their community. There’s more happening in the newsrooms than these quick-hit stories, and Today In doesn’t represent anything close to the best of what local newsrooms offer to their communities.”
The Day’s Paul Choiniere would no doubt agree. Even U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney has joined the conversation, co-sponsoring with Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-RI, and Rep. Doug Collins, R-GA, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act to allow publishers of local news “to negotiate collectively with large online platforms, including Facebook and Google.”
The bill presumably protects all local news outlets, including online-only sources, against the “dominant online platforms.” But the focus appears to be squarely on print newspapers with affiliated websites.
“Community newspapers are facing a market that is increasingly anti-competitive,” said Courtney. “Tech giants like Google and Facebook have centralized control of the vast majority of online content, and local publishers are being squeezed out while their labor is exploited.”
The bipartisan measure would establish a “48-month safe harbor for local publishers to band together and coordinate negotiations with dominant online platforms in order to improve the access to and the quality of news online.”
It’s no secret that local newspapers are merging and disappearing altogether — to the tune of 1,800 metro and community newspapers since 2004, according to a University of North Carolina study. If local newspapers could recoup some lost compensation from the Googles and Facebooks of the world, it would not only help their bottom line; it would also improve the wellbeing of their communities.
“What do strong local newspapers do?” asks Nieman’s Joshua Benton. “Well, past research has shown they increase voter turnout, reduce government corruption, make cities financially healthier, make citizens more knowledgeable about politics and more likely to engage with local government, force local TV to raise its game, encourage split-ticket (and thus less uniformly partisan) voting, [and] make elected officials more responsive and efficient.”
News consumers could themselves contribute to the wellbeing of their communities by paying for online subscriptions to local newspapers. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, the “local news” that citizens are not paying for is starting to reveal its worth. Which isn’t much.
Next week: The Role of Independent Online News Organizations
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.