Paywalls and Local Journalism

I’ve gone through a long, roundabout journey in my news consumption. I started out by following my husband’s lead of following local TV stations and newspapers on Twitter. I kept up mostly via headlines and the limited amount of articles I was allowed to read by those stations and papers, and then graduated to free email lists from places like Vox and the New York Times. I would get frustrated every single month when I hit my article limits, but refused to get subscriptions because “information should be free!” Why should I pay to see what’s happening in my own town? My own country? I hated paywalls. I was never one of those people who tweeted at reporters complaining about them, but I did my share of complaining to my husband.

Well, it finally got to the point where I broke down and got a digital subscription to the New York Times. Vox is completely free to read, but it was a little too partisan for me, and I wanted access to more in-depth articles than I was getting. Because the NYT is so big, I paid less than $10 per month for it, and that satisfied my need for national and international news. Around this same time, I finally figured out who was reporting on my state and local issues and followed those reporters, so in that way I was able to fill in most of the local gaps.

When George Floyd was murdered and protests began in my city, I finally broke down and got a local paper subscription. It’s almost $40 per month, which feels ridiculously expensive, but I wanted to read the in-depth protest coverage, as well as coverage of the city council. Plus, it was about to be local election time, and that is important to me. So now, three years after I moved here, I’m finally reading the local paper.

Quite regularly, I see people on Twitter complain about the paywalls to the reporters I follow, and those reporters almost always respond with something like this:

This annoys me sometimes, but obviously Scott Maxwell (who writes for the Orlando Sentinel – not my local paper) is not wrong! Technically, a lot of the information in newspapers, especially about elections as they’re discussing here, is publicly available, so why should we have to pay for it in newspaper form? The reason is because no average person has the time or willingness to do the work of looking for and compiling all this information, and no average person has the capacity to distribute that info to others. That’s why we have to pay reporters to do it for us. Reporters are so important. It cannot be an easy job, and as annoying as it is to have to pay for stuff like voter guides (I mean, it’s kind of important for everyone to have that!), complaining to the reporters who are just trying to support themselves is disingenuous.

So now we’re at the heart of the problem. High quality information – info that is relatively balanced, well-researched, scrutinized, and accurate as can be – costs money. Maybe it shouldn’t be like that, but it is. And the other side of the coin is that a lot of low quality information – info that is not well-researched, balanced, or accurate – is free. Most of my readers are from the US, and you all know ALL TOO WELL the partisan hell of disinformation that we live in. It is exhausting! And it is dangerous. This year especially, we have seen, in a horrifying way, just how dangerous disinformation is. Trump lies online all the time. People refuse to wear masks. Facebook has become a cesspool of hugely misleading or outright false articles that don’t get taken down.

So what do we do when the information that’s easily accessible is also the worst information? The most inaccurate? The most partisan? And more importantly, what do we do when the people we know and love use those sources for a lot of their info? I don’t really have a great answer for that, to be honest with you. I don’t know. I just try to share the sources I trust with those people – the sources I pay for, the sources where professional journalists have to work to tell the clearest, most unbiased story possible. I try to push back kindly. I try to listen and understand – really, I do – and by doing that I expect others to listen to and understand me.

It’s maybe more than a little naive, and it doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. Humans like to rise to others’ expectations, so just expecting a little more out of myself and others has led to better conversations. I’ve seen it happen with my brother, with coworkers, with friends. With every moment that I come a little closer to understanding someone else, and they to understanding me, it bolsters my (sometimes weak) faith in humanity. I know that “regular” journalism is not perfect, believe me. But it’s far better than the alternative, and it’s worth paying for, and worth talking about.

RELATED: Here’s a YouTube series by Destin Sandlin, a literal rocket scientist and Huntsville, AL native. This series explores how information on social media, especially the free kind, gets manipulated. Destin has built a huge and dedicated following and was able to talk to high-level people at Twitter and Facebook along with some others. My husband and I watched these as they came out and I have continued to recommend this series to everyone. (The rest of his channel is a little too science-y for me but so well-done.)

8 comments

  1. I keep a digital subscription to my local, for much the same reasons you mentioned here. When I was in Orlando, it was the Orlando Sentinel. Currently, I pay for the Washington Post and the New York Times.

    A number of my friends are journalists, and I hear often about how the actual work of investigative journalism is dying out, because news organizations have been making cutbacks, or have been outright closing up shop. It’s incredibly important to keep these institutions alive, and a digital subscription is the *least* I can do.

  2. We have long subscribed to our local newspaper. We are very fortunate because it is independently owned and operated, and has high quality reporting, it has won several Pulitzer prizes for journalism. This local subscription (we get the paper paper, but it includes internet access, allowing my husband and I to read at the same time) includes links to many articles by the Washington Post and New York Times. I have always felt like it is a good value. I also take the Economist, I do this because it covers international news well, especially China, where my son lives. We really do have to find ways to get good information and to at the very least have dis and mis-information labelled as opinion and/or unverified. Quality reporting does cost money to produce.

  3. Well done! Yes, disinformation and conspiracy theories are running high. It’s very disheartening. Thanks for the reminder to support real news! I haven’t watched it yet but I’ve heard that the new documentary called The Social Dilemma speaks to all this. I hope to watch it soon. 💜

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