UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – A La Carte journalism

In an age of struggle for print journalism, newspapers have tried to survive by implementing paywalls for access to their digital content — and they’re doing it all wrong. That’s not surprising for an industry that is responsible for covering the news yet somehow missed realizing how drastically the rise of online advertising was going to subvert their revenue streams. It’s no doubt the print journalism world should have seen the changes coming and should have been better able to adapt.

That said, the power and influence of these news organizations was clearly subverted by the freedom given to tech companies like Google and Facebook to exploit digital advertising revenue while dispensing other companies’ news content for free. The paywall seemed to be the only counter-move for newspapers. The problem with paywalls is the all-or-nothing approach. As a resident of Denver, I subscribe to the Denver Post, The Villager, and occasionally local magazines such as 5280. These print sources are where I receive the bulk of my news, both local and national. However, I’m also a regular reader of national and international news sources like the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the Guardian.

Sometimes a friend posts or emails an article I would like to read, such as a column from Peggy Noonan or Jason Gay in the Wall Street Journal, or a feature story from James Hamblin of The Atlantic. And while I really want to read the article and might be willing to pay for it, that doesn’t mean I want or need a $200 yearly subscription to a publication I don’t read daily. It seems odd that I could walk across the street and purchase a paper copy of the entire newspaper for $2.00, but can’t have the same convenience digitally. I can buy a print magazine for $5.00, but I can’t access a couple digital articles for the same price. That said, I’d be happy to pay $.50 – $2.00 for single articles, or a package of ten. 

Some newspapers offer voluntary payment options as a way to offset production costs. For example, The Guardian has a model I like for its flexibility and concept of individual contributions. Once or twice a year, I send ten or twenty dollars to The Guardian because I value the content I read there. I don’t read that paper daily or even weekly, but I do so regularly enough that I want to support the company. Similarly, many bloggers, open source sites, and independent freelance writers offer voluntary payment models. Wikipedia and Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings are a couple of good examples of the patronage concept that readers should support. In fact, nearly everyone I know uses Wikipedia at some point, and considering we appreciate and consume the product, we should all be willing to pony up a little cash to support it.

In order to better serve consumers, print journalism organizations should offer a la carte options for readers to access single articles or small blocks of content for the price of a daily paper, rather than a yearly subscription fee. Additionally, news magazines and newspapers should develop apps and web delivery software that inhibits search engines like Google and social media sites like Facebook from connecting with their content without a guarantee of some sort of ad revenue. Producers should be able to profit from and protect their content. Thus, if customers use Google to access news sites and also produce revenue from ads while doing so, Google has a market-based responsibility to pay for the content it uses, promotes, and links to. The same goes for any article posted to Facebook that in turn creates ad-based profit for the social media company. 

To that end, legislation may be necessary to protect the market system for producers to make money from their content. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, sponsored by Colorado Representative Ken Buck, is an important step in preserving the freedom and viability of the press. Newspaper writers from local beat reporters to national investigative journalists work incredibly hard to provide the public with the information it needs and desires. They deserve to be compensated for their work. Thus, the industry and consumers need to work together on a better system because the Fourth Estate is an essential part of a democratic society, and it must be preserved and supported.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com