Democracy Dies in Dumbness

Paywalls are not our problem.

Poynter has published an essay from Tara McGowan, founder of Good Information Inc., with the subhed, “Paywalls bolster news organizations’ bottom lines, but leave Americans in the dark. As a public service, let everyone read election stories for free.”

Much has already been said, tweeted and complained about The Washington Post’s tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” that was unveiled at the start of the Trump administration. It’s harsh, foreboding and alarming. But it’s also true. When people don’t know the facts, a government of the people is impossible.

So then why do the Post and many other legacy news publishers leave so many Americans in the dark?

See, if you want to read a Post article, including this one about how they came up with the tagline back in 2017, you might be blocked by a paywall. Big Tech giants like Facebook and Google are gorging on the advertising revenue that once sustained news organizations, so the publications have tightened access to their products to get people to pay for it through subscriptions. While that strategy has helped bolster news organizations’ bottom lines at a time when a healthy free press is sorely needed, it has also had the dangerous side effect of leaving the vast majority of Americans in the dark.

The answer to the Why is rather obvious: it’s really expensive to run a news operation. The Washington Post is a prestige outlet, so young journalists are willing to work there at something of a discount. But it’s really expensive to live in DC, New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago—the cities where our best newspapers are published—so there’s only so little they can accept. More senior reporters, editors, publishers, and the like command more money. And that’s to say nothing of the expenses of actually gathering the news. Or printing a newspaper, running websites, and keeping the lights on. The Washington Post is a major undertaking. There’s only so much even a Jeff Bezos is going to be willing to lose operating it.

I often refer to people who don’t pay for news as “passive” news consumers. That doesn’t suggest a moral failing on their part. It just means they’re simply consuming the news that comes to them through their daily scrolling of social media feeds, email inboxes and conversations with people they trust.

American news consumers fall into three groups today: a small lobbying class that can afford thousands of dollars in news-analysis subscriptions like Politico Pro; a larger but still very limited group that will pay to get behind paywalls; and by far the largest group of Americans — those who will not or cannot pay for their news.

So, I’m in the middle group. I pay for monthly access to the NYT, WSJ,* the Atlantic, and various niche sites. I’d pay for WaPo as well but I’m eligible for a free subscription thanks to a .mil email address. (It used to be free with a .edu, which I also have, but that was discontinued long ago.) I’d pay for LAT if it were cheap enough but it doesn’t provide enough unique content to justify it otherwise.

But here’s the thing: outside of a few short years beginning in the late aughts, I’ve always paid for daily news reporting. I had a NYT paper subscription as an undergrad. As an Army officer, I paid for daily copies of Stars and Stripes, usually by putting a quarter into a newsbox. As a grad student, I paid for both the NYT and the Tuscaloosa News. As I moved around, I paid for the Chattanooga Free Press, the Bainbridge (Georgia) Post-Searchlight, and WaPo. At some point during my blogging career, I stopped taking the print edition of WaPo and just relying on free access to the various newspaper websites. (And there was never I time, going back to my high school days, when I wasn’t subscribing to at least a couple of magazines.)

Was I a bit miffed when paywalls started going up? Sure. I had gotten accustomed to getting all the content I wanted for free. And early attempts to put up paywalls at NYT and elsewhere failed because some other outlet would simply “re-report” any stories they broke. Eventually, though, the sheer necessity of figuring out a way to make the businesses profitable forced just everybody worth reading behind a paywall.

Does it suck for those unable or unwilling to pay? Sure. But, again, until 20 years ago, the notion that you could get the local newspaper—much less NYT, WaPo, and WSJ—for free would have been absurd. And 25 years ago, it was damned near impossible to get the great national papers on the same day they came out at any price. (NYT tended to have arrangements to deliver copies to locked containers at various universities, maybe just in the eastern part of the country.)

Further, the amount of still-free news that exists today would have been unimaginable back then. Google News, YahooNews, CNN, and NPR alone provide enough to keep most people reasonably informed. And that’s to say nothing of CNN and NPR’s broadcast outlets.

Passive consumers may have faith that good, accurate news about the world and their own communities will somehow find them. But with few exceptions, they’re wrong about that. Increasingly, the fact-based news that’s necessary for a pro-democracy citizenry is behind a paywall. On social media, passive consumers are more likely to see propaganda that capitalizes on the ways information is distributed there. Biased algorithms reward salacious and emotionally charged content — often favoring right-leaning messaging that is outright false. Platforms could turn off these algorithms with a click, but we know that they won’t — because disinformation is their business model.

So, if you’re getting your news primarily from your Facebook feed, you’re simply not interested in being a contributing member of society. And it wouldn’t matter if Steve Inskeep personally knocked on your door offering to give you a briefing; you’re just not going to listen.

McGowan disagrees.

We don’t have to accept this. News organizations can take their own actions right now to channel their pro-democracy mission statements into action, get good information to the people who need it most, and slow the spread of disinformation. Here are some ways:

Make 2022 election coverage free.

Most news outlets with paywalls have a policy to offer certain news stories for free when the story is of overriding public importance. They did just that in the early days of the pandemic. The future of our democracy is a critical enough issue to fall under that policy, isn’t it? And publishers should realize that dropping the paywall for election news is not economic suicide. In fact, most local news outlets saw an increase in subscriptions at the start of the pandemic even though they made their coronavirus stories free. Why? Because their coverage reminded consumers that they were a valuable product for the long term.

So, while the pandemic was far and away the most pressing story of 2020—people were literally dying—it wasn’t the only story. People were still willing to pay to get access to other news. If the papers give away politics coverage—the bread and butter of national outlets—there’s essentially nothing left. What are people going to pay for? Wordles? Recipes?

Create a pro-democracy underwriting program.

If news outlets are worried that they’ll lose money by making their most click-worthy political content free, they should find corporate sponsors for that content. This would be the kind of image marketing that works for many companies today. Many corporations are being called out for funding pro-insurrection candidates. Surely there are corporations out there that would want to be on a list of businesses that support democracy by bolstering a free press.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

News outlets have spent the last two decades plus trying to replace the advertising model. If there were good samaritan corporations out there interested in funding news coverage, don’t you think they’d have been found by now?

Now, I’m sure there are companies out there who would be willing to sponsor certain categories of content so long as they had editorial control over it. But, rather obviously, that’s counter to McGowan’s goal.

Team up to spread free, reliable information.

An encouraging trend in U.S. journalism is collaboration among news organizations. Often a for-profit outlet teams up with a nonprofit newsroom, or multiple nonprofit news outlets get together on a project to lift up under-covered stories and voices, or reach new audiences. In either case, the stories they collaborate on are often available for free online. This growing trend toward mission-first and nonprofit news must be supercharged by people who have the money to make a difference.

Good luck with that. Bezos bought the Post, which I believe remains a top-notch newspaper. But many are understandably leery that coverage of Amazon’s many businesses is more timid than it would otherwise be.

And, again, if there were a lot of billionaires out there itching to provide great journalism for free, don’t you think they’d have announced themselves? They tend not to be a timid lot.

Stop writing for the elite.

Even with historic turnout records in 2018 and 2020, more than half of eligible voters didn’t cast ballots. One reason: The vast majority of political news coverage is written for elites. Most Americans don’t care about electoral horse races or legislative sausage-making. That style of reporting actually exacerbates Americans’ distaste for and mistrust of our government and the media. Effective reporting informs people about decisions that impact their families, who makes those decisions, and what motivates those decisions. And because humans are the way that they are, the most effective method to inform people is through storytelling. Put everyday people — not senators — at the center of stories. (Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan has great advice on this.)

So, first off, 66.9% of the voting-eligible population voted in the 2020 election—the highest total on record. The lowest turnouts in recent times were in 1996 and 1988—before paywalls, or even the World Wide Web—were a thing.

Second, while the critique of horserace politics is as valid as it is longstanding, there’s a reason why it continues to dominate: the kind of people who read about politics in the 45 months of the 48-month presidential cycle that 85% of the country tunes out are very interested in it. You and I, reader of a politics blog in July of an off-year cycle, are among them. We happen to be the kind of people who fit into McGowan’s second category: non-passive news consumers willing to pay to keep the lights on at newspapers.

I also consume sports (mostly Crimson Tide and Dallas Cowboys football) coverage year-round, even during the very long offseasons when there’s very little news. I always laugh when people who not only pay to subscribe to sites like The Athletic but participate in its message boards bitch that the sportswriters are offering speculation about the upcoming season in June when, after all, the games will play out in the fall. I mean, what the hell else are they supposed to write about from February through August?

Politics, obviously, offers more real news than football because there’s no offseason. But coverage of, say, Build Back Better is very inside-baseball and of very little news to any but the wonkiest policy wonk. So, it becomes a soap opera about the latest drama involving Joe Manchin because that provides characters and a plotline.

Go where non-subscribing Americans are.

When it comes to news media, the old adage “if you build it they will come” is not only irrelevant, but dangerously out of touch. To reach specific groups of people, you need to show up where they spend their time. Concise and direct presentation is vital. We founded Courier Newsroom in 2019 to provide passive consumers with fact-based journalism from a progressive perspective. We proactively find and target these audiences because social algorithms will simply not do that for us, and all of our original reporting is available to them for free where they get their information online.

One strategy that news outlets can deploy immediately is to boost their content directly to specific new audiences through targeted ad spends on platforms like Facebook and Google, using third-party data or their own targeting capabilities — the same way their marketing teams are targeting likely paying subscribers to grow their audiences and bottom lines.

I lack the technical know-how to evaluate this suggestion. I push out OTB content to Twitter and used to do the same to Facebook before they blocked auto-posting.

But the obvious question arises: Courier Newsroom has been doing this since 2019. Why is there still a problem to be solved? Clearly, all the progressive news that’s fit to print has now been absorbed by the great unwashed masses. Right?

Another approach is to build new capacity in newsrooms to identify the digital spaces where under-reached audiences spend their time and to share content through existing trusted messengers to these communities. The key is to go where they are, and make the information as accessible as possible. Think Instagram carousels and TikTok videos, not 2,000-word stories or clickbaity headlines. The Post’s investment in TikTok and relatively new approach to sharing headline graphics on Instagram is worth emulating.

So . . . and I’m just spitballin’ here . . . what if this solution actually just reinforces the problem?

Look, there’s simply no shortage of news out there. I can get all of the politics I want from NPR, BBC, Reuters, and numerous other high-quality, low-bias websites. There’s a near-infinite supply of high-quality podcasts out there. All for free, sometimes without even having to fast forward past the ads.

If you’re not willing to read 2000-word stories or listen to a 45-minute podcast and are getting your news from fucking TikTok and Instagram, you’re a goddamn simpleton who should not be allowed to leave your home, much less help decide who our next President is. We really, really, really, should not encourage more people to join their ranks.

I’ve long advocated some sort of universal subscription service, much like we have for music and video content, that allows people to pay for access to a wide range of content rather than having to pay for individual access to multiple papers. Few people, indeed, can justify paying for both WaPo and NYT, let alone a half dozen papers; there’s just too much overlap. But most of us would like to have unfettered access to them all and be willing to pay some sort of tiered rate.

________________

*WSJ is a great paper but I’d never been willing to pay its premium subscription rate. A few months back, they were offering it for something like $3 or $4 a month for the first year. I’ll likely cancel after that unless I can get a similar discount.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    My initial reaction: This is a terrific piece, Professor Joyner.

    11
  2. MarkedMan says:

    James, I agree with your take that this is a dumb piece, or at least just a pretend-dumb-as-clickbait one. And we certainly can see the difference in quality of reporting between the few papers that have made the subscriber model work and the collapsing newsrooms of those that haven’t. But it’s worth noting that in the print days, there were always newspapers floating around. Stop by any public venue and there was probably a newspaper or two left behind. That can’t happen in the online world.

    Of course it’s worth noting that even when I worked at Xerox, chock full of educated professionals, I would go into the cafeteria and find newspaper sections scattered around the tables. The comics and sports sections were well used, and the business section was only slightly less rumpled. But the main section with the front page and all the political, local and national news was usually the least touched.

    3
  3. wr says:

    Agree with you all the way down the line here.

    And you’re really not missing anything with the LA Times. It was my local paper for decades, and I’d be willing to pay ten dollars a month not to get it. Fortunately that service is still free!

    3
  4. wr says:

    Oh, and this is my favorite headline in forever. Well done!

    3
  5. Chris says:

    This article outlines a problem that needs a solution. As Frederick Douglass said, “knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” So, in order to create a more perfect union of free people, we must find a way to promote the dissemination of factual information that is important for public consideration and it’s political discourse.

    2
  6. CSK says:

    Even open access to the legitimate news outlets wouldn’t encourage the MAGAs to use them, since they only believe what they see in Breitbart, The Gateway Pundit, The Conservative Tree House, etc.

    Everything else is “fake news.”

    2
  7. Kathy says:

    But here’s the thing: outside of a few short years beginning in the late aughts, I’ve always paid for daily news reporting.

    Yes, but for a period between then and the rise of the paywalls, we got used to not paying a penny for newspapers and magazines online. It’s hard to live with open floodgates, and then find them locked behind paywalls.

    Until around 2008 or 2009, I had subscriptions to science magazines (variously Discover, Popular Science, and Scientific American*). Not because I couldn’t read them online at home, but because I often had long waits with very little to do when presenting proposals or samples (long story).

    I do pay monthly subscriptions to Audible and Scribd. The latter offers a large selection of ebooks, audiobooks, and magazine content for about $9 a month. Audible charger around $15 for one credit, which entitles you to get one audiobook, but also has a selection of shorter works available with the subscription.

    This is really nice, but I never got free ebooks or audiobooks regularly before. If I had, I probably wouldn’t pay for either service. I don’t pay for podcasts, for example. Most are still free, but offer extras for a subscription. If/when they start charging for every episode, I’ll have to figure something out.

    Oh, one last thing. In the old days, it was perfectly possible to borrow someone’s printed copy of the paper, or to fish one out of the trash, or to get your news free one day late by asking someone else for yesterday’s paper. You could also make use of newspapers to wrap fish.

    Modern paywall editions are nowhere near as versatile.

    2
  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The problem is the shear number of rent-seekers out there today.
    Subscriptions are like vampires, bleeding your bank account.
    BMW recently started charging a monthly subscription for heated seats, FFS.
    I have a foot/inches calculator on my desk, and used to have an app by the same company on my phone, for use in the field. When they came out with an updated version they started charging a subscription. (I no longer have that app on my phone.)
    If I were to subscribe to everything I would like, that requires a subscription, I’d be broke.

    But I get it – quality journalism, or content of any type, costs money to produce. Solution; I’d like to see the world go a la carte as opposed to subscriptions. You want to read a story, it’s $00.25 or $00.50 or whatever. Keep an account and charge me at the end of the month. At least that way I am in control and not just the victim of hi-tech blood-suckers.

    2
  9. mattbernius says:

    For all the handwringing about national news, generally speaking, it’s fine. The papers and channels of record will weather any storms that come at them.

    The challenge is what’s happening in the rest of the country. What we continually see is how important local coverage is (see, for example, Uvalde or the Ohio/Indiana 10-year-old rape & abortion case) and those are the newsrooms that are struggling the most. And where they disappear or become less accessible, the gap is filled by things like Conservative Talk Radio.

    I don’t know what the answer is. And far smarter folks than I have run up against this for years. And this is a real challenge. FWIW, I do think there *may* be something about giving away topics for communal good (like Corona Virus or information about the Uvalde school shooting). That was something that caused me to resubscribe to our local paper for the first time in years (and continue that subscription). But I’m also someone who donates to NPR.

    Also, I think @MarkedMan anecdote raises an important point about physical newspapers:

    Of course it’s worth noting that even when I worked at Xerox, chock full of educated professionals, I would go into the cafeteria and find newspaper sections scattered around the tables. The comics and sports sections were well used, and the business section was only slightly less rumpled. But the main section with the front page and all the political, local and national news was usually the least touched.

    One great thing about them was the way they circulated and could be reused/reread after the person who bought them was done with them. I think that is something whose impact shouldn’t be discounted.

    5
  10. DAllenABQ says:

    Great piece, but Alabama and the Cowboys? Sheesh.

    2
  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ll join the chorus: nice piece, @Joyner.

    I had a subscription to the Washington Post when I was in DC during Watergate. Talk about value for money. I’d have crawled over broken glass to get the latest from Woodward and Bernstein. I have a WaPo subscription now, as well as the NYT and @wr: the LA Times which I check intermittently just to see if they have anything original. (Nope.) Bunch of other bits and pieces, news sites, analysis sites.

    Making election reporting free is not a solution to the problem of general ignorance. The coverage voters don’t get is the coverage they don’t have the will to get – economics, foreign policy, law, historical context, philosophical context. Americans couldn’t find Mexico on a map of North America if the word ‘Mexico’ was spelled out in burritos. The ignorance goes deep and is not the fault of paywalls.

    ETA: And don’t forget YouTube as a source. Of course it helps if you know what you’re looking at so you can assess the content and the source. . . oh, right. Never mind.

    2
  12. Jen says:

    Great piece, Dr. Joyner.

    As a public relations professional, I have likely spent more time than the average news consumer thinking, writing, and talking about newspapers over the last 2+ decades.

    McGowan is more than a bit off-base here. Corporate sponsors? Good LORD, no. Or, “Put everyday people — not senators — at the center of stories”–great, more Cletus Safaris (TM).

    News costs money to generate. On the tee-vee, cable news can depend on advertising. Not so with online “print.” The current subscription model is barely covering it, and local papers are dying by the day. (I have a subscription to the Union Leader, and even though I can bill that to my business as a legitimate expense given my line of work, I’m thinking of canceling it, because it’s just not worth it.)

    I’ve long advocated for some type of Paypal-like charging account–you preload the account with X number of dollars and then pay for an article based on what you read. It would be publication-agnostic–you want to read 2 pieces at the NYT, one at Politico, 2 at WaPo, and four from your local paper? Fine–for each piece, you click “confirm” and the designated amount per piece goes to the publication. I refuse to believe that the technology doesn’t exist–if we can figure out a way to charge people for Candy Crush or Apple iTunes, we can figure this out.

    I know papers would rather lock people into subscriptions, but I think they are being short-sighted about how much they could make in small amounts.

    What are people going to pay for? Wordles? Recipes?

    I do pay for access to the NYT Recipe section. It really is that good.

  13. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    @Jen:

    I’ll preface by saying sometimes there’s a story behind a paywall that I really want to red, but not badly enough to pay for a subscription. So the notion of micro payments per story does appeal to me.

    On the other hand, isn’t that the model used by music streaming services? As I understand, it works reasonably well for big artists and labels, but not for smaller ones. So, something along those lines might work well for the big national papers, but not for the smaller local ones.

  14. Blue Galangal says:

    @Kathy: I concur, Kathy. And I also agree: great piece, Dr. Joyner. People are choosing to get their news from FB and TikTok.

    @Jen: – the WaPo’s Voraciously is a great section! I’ve found a lot of good stuff there.

    FYI, I have an .edu address and get a discounted subscription for the WaPo for $6/mo. I make good use of it. I still subscribe to S&S. I also subscribe to a local paper (Dayton Daily News) that I get in paper once a week + electronic access. It costs $15/mo. I prefer it to the Gannett outlet in Cincinnati, since DDN is still almost/kind of a locally owned paper.

    2
  15. Joe says:

    Good article. I will look forward to my next Patreon payment for this site and encourage others to sign up to pay it.

    1
  16. gVOR08 says:

    What are people going to pay for? Wordles? Recipes?

    Apropos @MarkedMan: I believe I’ve seen NYT say their most read sections, besides sports, are food, style, and pop culture.

    There was a brief period where we all got used to reading pretty much whatever we wanted online for free, and, coincidentally, media organizations started losing money big time. Prior to that, the kid didn’t plop the Cincinnati Enquirer in the driveway every (well, many) mornings for free. On the other hand, most people did get their news for free. Almost everybody watched the evening news on one of the three networks. They had biases, mostly the same biases NYT still has: pro-establishment, conventional wisdom, don’t rock the boat, access journalism, and make sure you’re invited to the good NY cocktail parties. But that wasn’t a big problem except for Vietnam. They tended to be pretty good because they hadn’t yet become profit centers.

    What I really miss from back when I wore an onion on my belt is weekly news magazines. They covered the same news as the papers and nightly news, but a bit more considered and in depth. It was nice to sit down and take a leisurely read through the previous weeks news. And even way back then have a laugh at George Wills’ expense. I recall switching from Time to Newsweek because Newsweek was quicker to realize the Dirty Fucking Hippies had been right about Vietnam all along. (As they still are about Defund. Hi, Michael. Seen the bit about 400 cops?) This also applied some to sports. I miss the weeks or month old coverage of auto racing. I still occasionally refer to the continent as Yurp, following the lead of Road & Track’s long time Yurpan correspondent. I occasionally skim a Time or Newsweek at the bookstore rack and find there’s not much left of them. And R&T seems to have turned into Cigar Aficionado for people who think owning a BMW is a lifestyle. They barely mention racing.

    2
  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Jen:

    I’ve long advocated for some type of Paypal-like charging account–you preload the account with X number of dollars and then pay for an article based on what you read. It would be publication-agnostic–you want to read 2 pieces at the NYT, one at Politico, 2 at WaPo, and four from your local paper? Fine–for each piece, you click “confirm” and the designated amount per piece goes to the publication.

    I’ve seen that suggested many times, probably because it makes so much sense. The one thing a find really frustrating about the current situation is clicking a link to something and finding a paywall. Most outlets allow a few free articles, but many don’t, and I’m not going to pay for a subscription to the Lower Hogwaller Times Gazette for the one story I’ll ever want to read.

    I’ll add I see little value to the idea of free election coverage. Most of it’s horse-race, he-said-she-said crap that adds little value, especially for low info voters who can’t sort the odd true and relevant grain of wheat from the chaff.

    4
  18. Just nutha says:

    I may be the exception, but my experience is that when there’s a paywalled article that I really want to read, I manage to find it for free by using the article’s title to search Yahoo or MSN.
    Course, I’m reading on Yahoo or MSN, so there’s THAT stigma.

    1
  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    I donate to my local PBS/NPR because they have good news and my local station in particular is putting a lot of resources into local news.

    I’m loathe to subscribe to the NYT or the WP, because even though they’re the best national papers, it’s becoming increasingly obvious how the subscriber model is weakening their reporting as there is more of a focus on what I can only describe as “political gossip” that is cheap to cover and drives clicks but does little to inform about what’s going on. e.g. the Jan 6 coverage seems more focussed on play-by-play of Rep vs. Dem catfighting about the hearings than on investigating what was actually going on.

    There’s also increasingly an almost “pay-for-play” aspect to it as they’re print stories or editorials they almost have to know are being presented in bad faith to maintain “source” relationships.

    1
  20. Scott says:

    Once upon a time (say the sixties), you would get a daily newspaper delivered at home, maybe a weekly magazine (Time, Life, Newsweek), the evening news, a local weekly neighborhood paper and that’s about it.

    I feel that today, there is no lack of sources. I still get a daily newspaper delivered, a couple on line clip service emails (like Early Bird Brief, a defense clip service), Yahoo news, etc. And then there is streaming. Haystack news clips from ABC, CBS, Euronews, Al-Jezeera, Bloomberg, Newsy, Cheddar, etc. Having cut cable, I don’t get CNN, MSNBC, and Fox and I don’t miss them because they are short on news and long on gab.

    Bottom line, it is not paywalls that are hindering the dissemination of news.

    2
  21. Roger says:

    @mattbernius: <blockquoteFor all the handwringing about national news, generally speaking, it’s fine. The papers and channels of record will weather any storms that come at them.

    The challenge is what’s happening in the rest of the country.

    This. When I came to Kansas City in the early ’80s, the town had two perfectly fine daily newspapers, the morning Times and the evening Star. Neither was going to be confused with the NYT or Washington Post, but both did a solid job of reporting on local news, with occasional in-depth looks at local issues that were truly outstanding and a sports page in the Star that, for several years in the 90s and early 2000s, I would put up against any paper in the country. Despite out-of-town corporate ownership, they dedicated significant resources to local coverage: the City Council, County legislature, police department, and courts each had reporters committed to their respective beats who were there even when nothing particularly interesting or newsworthy was going on. Now, the Times is long gone and the Star is a shell of its former self (although Hooray!–they did win a Pulitzer this year based on the work of columnist on her way out of town).

    I have digital subscriptions to the NYT, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. Between those and the commentary from free sites like this one (thanks, Drs. Taylor and Joyner) it’s pretty easy to feel at least marginally well-informed about what’s happening globally and around the country. But even though I still keep up my online subscription to the Kansas City Star, I have very little knowledge about what’s happening in my own community, and very little ability to fill in the gaps in that knowledge. That’s a problem.

    4
  22. mattbernius says:

    @Roger:
    That’s the story of so many small and midsized cities. It’s definitely what happened here in Rochester NY. First, you lose one paper. Then the daily becomes a shell of itself. I’m wondering what will happen here when all of the old-school stringers retire. So much is going to be lost. And while the local public media station has done a lot to pick up the slack, it’s just not enough.

  23. JKB says:

    Ari Fleischer is making the rounds promoting his book on the press. He’s got an anecdote that a recent poll showed only the college-credentialed report that the media understands them. Every other group say the media don’t understand them. We can interpret this as they don’t report in a manner those not college credentialed find in of interest.

    with fact-based journalism from a progressive perspective.

    Seems the problem is the “progressive perspective” doesn’t sell newspapers to any be the “educated strata” who C.S. Lewis observed are the “most easily gulled”.

    This observation on the rise of magazines in the 1930s gives some idea as to how these changes in news media goes. The author was the editor of Harpers

    That there was money to be made nevertheless by the sharp presentation of facts, and particularly of facts about America, was shown by the growing success of Time an expertly edited, newsy, and withal irreverent (though not at all radical) weekly and its younger sister Fortune (founded in 1930), which although edited by liberals for the benefit chiefly of the rich, developed such a brilliant technical team-research and team-authorship and trimmed its sails so skillfully to the winds of conservatism that it not only became a mine of factual material for future historians but subtly broadened reactionary minds. None of the other periodical successes of the decade promised to have so acute an effect upon the status of the writer as this adventure in writing a magazine inside the office; there were those who saw in it a threat of extinction to the free-lance journalist, a threat of the coming of the day when the magazine writer would have to look for an office job or be shut out from publication.

    –Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America, September 3, 1929–September 3, 1939, Frederick Lewis Allen

  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    @gVOR08:

    As they still are about Defund. Hi, Michael. Seen the bit about 400 cops?)

    Why yes, I have.

    I remain amazed at the inability of intelligent people such as yourself to grasp that ‘right on the test’ is not ‘right IRL.’ Politics is not about being right. This is not the SAT or the GRE where anyone cares about the correct answer. It’s not a seminar where a bon mot makes you a hero. Politics is about power. In reality ‘Defund’ knee-capped police reform. It’ll be a decade at least before Democrats get back into a position to talk about police reform, and that is thanks to the ever-so-right, ‘Defund’ fiasco.

    I am a big fan of ‘correct,’ I’m just a much bigger fan of, ‘effective.’

    8
  25. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    A particular example of the sort of stuff in the NYT that bugs me is the increasingly common habit they have of quoting someone in an article as an example of what an “average voter” thinks when 30 seconds of googling reveals the person in question is actually a Republican Party candidate or party official. It’s become so common that at this point it’s either a sign of gross incompetence or a deliberate decision by the editors to launder Republican talking points. In neither case am I encouraged to sends them my money.

  26. Mister Bluster says:

    Rochester NY
    My first job was to deliver the Rochester Times-Union in my West Webster neighborhood after school in 1960. I remember that I had to get a work permit from the State of New York since I was 12 years old and too young to be legally employed. I also remember that there were a few customers that didn’t pay when I would knock on their door to collect. If they hadn’t been such stiffs I might have had enough money to fix my bicycle after it broke down and I wouldn’t have had to walk the route every day.
    I guess it is ironic that in my retirement 60+ years later that I have a part time job delivering the free weekly Carbondale Times. Even with the price of gas today the newspaper delivery job is worthwhile and I don’t have to collect from cheapskate subscribers.

    3
  27. MarkedMan says:

    @mattbernius: The Baltimore Sun was once a pretty darn good newspaper, but the corporate takeovers pretty much killed it. Very little local news aside from the biggest stories. A few old columnists reminiscing about the old days. But I just subscribed to the Baltimore Banner for a year. Not sure if they can pull it off but they are attempting to build an (online only) newspaper from scratch. I hope it works out for them.

    1
  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB: Wow! Back to the hundred-year-old sources again, eh JK?

    1
  29. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: The more modern sources are behind a paywall.

    3
  30. Mu Yixiao says:

    If you’re interested in the content and don’t care about the formatting, use a text-only browser (I use lynx). It doesn’t have the capacity for all the fancy code the paywall needs to function. It’s like reading on an old CRT from the 80’s, but it gets you to the content.

    3
  31. Gustopher says:

    Apple apparently tried to find a way to bundle WaPo or NYTimes with their News+ service, but was never able to get to an agreement. They were even willing to settle for the LA Times, if reports are accurate.

    It’s a shame, because it comes with enough other magazines and niche papers that it is so close to a good idea for consumers. I’m convinced that bundling is the way to go, so people get access to the things they don’t realize they want access to.

    Adding access to local papers and surfacing based on location would also be good.

    (I have not signed up because it is missing the tent pole publications I want… and the price as it is is already too high)

    1
  32. Michael Cain says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I’m loathe to subscribe to the NYT or the WP, because even though they’re the best national papers…

    As the years go by, I believe less and less that they are truly national newspapers. Subjective impressions, but… Both will take almost any opportunity to lead with a European story than with something from west of the Appalachians if there’s no East Coast story. I’m more likely to find an in-depth piece about something in the American West in the US edition of the Guardian than I am in the Times or Post.

    1
  33. DK says:

    This is fantastic. A round of applause.

    Look,, there’s simply no shortage of news out there. I can get all of the politics I want from NPR, BBC, Reuters, and numerous other high-quality, low-bias websites. There’s a near-infinite supply of high-quality podcasts out there. All for free, sometimes without even having to fast forward past the ads.

    QFT. Please let’s stop coddling the willfully ignorant.

    1
  34. Kathy says:

    For the record, I very much appreciated the non-paywalled stories about COVID in Scientific American*, which does have a paywall up for all other content. It was probably the best journalism on the pandemic I came across 90% of the time.

    *Discover magazine as well, but to a lesser extent.

    1
  35. Chip Daniels says:

    Its easily forgotten that until the post-WW2 Edward R. Murrow era, most newspapers including the Gray Lady were, um, crap.

    Most were viciously slanted, promoted salacious gossip over analysis and in general were little more than comics, sports, classified ad, and advertisements with some actual news tossed in because those were the revenue generating sections. The hard news was always just a vanity hood ornament.

    The only reason that changed is because the internet stripped away all the profitable sectors.

    7
  36. CSK says:

    @Chip Daniels:
    Well, there was a pretty long gap between Edward R. Murrow and the Internet.

    2
  37. MarkedMan says:

    @Chip Daniels: The “All the News Fit to Print” motto of the NYT was pretty accurate, but it didn’t mean what that sounds like to our modern ears. If you go back in the archives you will see the closing value of every stock listed on a major exchange, every day. The arrival and departure of every passenger and cargo ship in a New York dock. The commodity prices of everything. Dozens or hundreds of obituaries and marriages. Who among the elite hosted a party the night before, who attended and what the women wore. They essentially were a version of google before the internet.

  38. Jay L Gischer says:

    I kind of agree that progressively oriented news outlets don’t sell all that well. Of course, many conservatives claim that the largest-selling outlets, such as the NY Times and CNN, are leftist and “fake news”.

    My best understanding of what’s happening to news in small communities is that its all moving to Facebook pages run by a single volunteer. Assuming that format can handle it (which is true of where I grew up – it’s that small). But the towns of size 100K have an oddly tougher time. One person can’t handle it, but there’s not enough money there to assemble a team and get them paid.

    1
  39. Gustopher says:

    There’s decent, national and international news freely available — go to https://apnews.com/

    The main problem is that no one wants it because it is poorly packaged and doesn’t tell them what they want to hear — that their rights are under attack and they need to be mad. It’s a little boring.

    This is as spicy as it gets:

    Report: Conservative Newsmax peddles Jan. 6 misinformation
    https://apnews.com/article/capitol-siege-donald-trump-misinformation-afa51409a16672232b55fa62b432aba4

    But there’s news out there without a paywall. Decent news. McGowan might want to focus her complain more on the AP for being boring.

  40. Matt Bernius says:

    @Chip Daniels:
    100%. We tend to overestimate how long the “golden age of journalism” was. And what created that age (a combination of consolidation and the fact that newspapers and other news services were essentially printing money for years). In the history of American Journalism, it was a blip. And honestly, today’s media landscape is closer to what existed previously, with the exception that there was more support for local versus national journalism.

    @DK:
    At the national level, I completely agree. At the local and state level, hard disagree. The reality is that there is really poor accessible coverage at those levels and that has a real impact. Part of the reason we are in this mess is that Republicans understand that the pathway to controlling the federal government is through state governments (and to a lesser degree Congressional Districts). And most locals don’t have adequate coverage of what is going on at the state level (especially when it comes to investigative journalism).

    There are a lot of state legislative and congressional seats that are geographically linked to news deserts (places where there is little to no news reporting). And that means that the people in those seats can do pretty much whatever they want and never face consequences.

    That is a real issue.