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Whither Goes News, Who Pays?

This is another one of my rambling rants that’s not really beer-related, or at least not beer-centric. If heavy media discussions are not your bag, feel free to stop here and just ignore this one. Beer topics will resume in a few moments. This topic does effect beer insofar as it effects everything in the world, the galaxy and the universe. I’ve long argued that as newspapers die their slow death, that people’s unwillingness to continue to support them and other “paid” media, will have a chilling effect on how the news is shaped, who shapes it, and ultimately how transparent and unbiased it is. I spoke a little bit about this during my time on The Brewing Network this past Sunday, and regular readers may recognize the topic, as well. I’ve been arguing that we have to be willing to pay for our news or we won’t have any news left, or at least not the diversity that’s essential to a free society. Now I realize the fourth estate is hardly free from bias as it stands now, but just wait until there’s only a couple of wire services left. We’re already going in that direction as smaller and regional newspapers lay off staff, create only their local news and rely on the wire services for state, national and world news. For almost any big story, especially overseas, the origin of the coverage is now from only a handful of sources, like the AP, Reuters or UPI.

In fact, there’s only two major U.S. news agencies (The Associated Press and United Press International) and maybe another five worldwide, all located in Europe. The other ones you’ve likely heard of include BBC News, Bloomberg, CNN and the PR Newswire. There’s many more smaller ones in addition, and Wikipedia list nearly fifty in total, which they consider “major”. The Mondo Times World Media Directory lists 34, and doesn’t appear to include the press release clearing houses. But there’s far less than there used to be, and the number is dropping all the time.

Once upon a time, most major papers, and at least the media groups, had “bureaus” all over the world with dedicated staff and reporters that were constantly monitoring local affairs and were ready at any time should a big story develop. Content varied widely and vigorous competition made each media outlet dig deeper and search for the fresh angle. Before that, most major cities had more than one newspaper competing for readership. That, too, made the news richer and fairer overall.

As much as I’d love that time to return, it’s just wishful thinking and the present is what it is. The internet, combined with other factors, have forever altered the way we consume information, and especially news. I’ve long thought that part of the reason for the media decline is because so much news is available free on the internet. As a result, people get their news from other sources than traditional media. The problem with that is, if people aren’t willing to continue paying for their news, then who’s going to collect it and report on it? Yes, blogging has taken up some of the slack in limited ways with amateur reporters finding unique voices and most media outlets now even have blogs as a part of the web presence.

But as cool as “citizen journalism” is, it can never completely replace traditional media, because somebody has to gather the original stories. The majority of blogs still rely on traditional media for source news. For example, I learn about a lot of the news in the beer world from a variety of sources. I get press releases from breweries and other beer-related companies. Friends in the industry let me know what they’re up to and send me samples. But I still have to rely on traditional media for some beer news, financial stuff, for example. Worldwide news, big brewery news, things like that are the type of things I have to rely upon other sources for. Like many bloggers, I strive to not just regurgitate the news, but analyze it, look deeper into its meaning or otherwise put my own stamp or spin on it. But if that source news isn’t there to comment on, all is lost. This is especially true for stories that aren’t clear cut or for which one side of it has an interest in being spun in a way that’s favorable to them. That’s already happening with dwindling media diversity where overworked newspapers don’t have the time or resources to tell the other side of a story or include contrary opinions so they instead rely heavily on press releases, which are notoriously one-sided. [I should disclose that I make a portion of my living writing for a traditional newspaper.]

I know plenty of people who work for different newspapers, and a lot of them are worried about their futures, personally, professionally and in a more general sense of what will happen when all the papers are no more. Yes, you can make the argument that all people resist change and history is littered with such examples. But I keep coming back to the point that if there are no more media (or more likely just a very few big) outlets paying reporters to gather the stories, then we’ll be relying on an ever decreasing number of sources for all news, which I can’t help but believe will make it easier to manipulate that news and spin it whichever way someone wants. Or at the very least, water it down more than it already is. And that’s what will happen if we don’t continue to support traditional media by paying for it.

My fears, I thought, were somewhat borne out by a recent poll reported in the New York Times. The article, entitled About Half in U.S. Would Pay for Online News, Study Finds, which concludes that “Americans, it turns out, are less willing than people in many other Western countries to pay for their online news.”

Among regular Internet users in the United States, 48 percent said in the survey, conducted in October, that they would pay to read news online, including on mobile devices. That result tied with Britain for the lowest figure among nine countries where Boston Consulting commissioned surveys. In several Western European countries, more than 60 percent said they would pay.

When asked how much they would pay, Americans averaged just $3 a month, tied with Australia for the lowest figure — and less than half the $7 average for Italians. The other countries included in the study were Germany, France, Spain, Norway and Finland.

“Consumer willingness and intent to pay is related to the availability of a rich amount of free content,” said John Rose, a senior partner and head of the group’s global media practice. “There is more, better, richer free in the United States than anywhere else.”

The question is of crucial interest to the American newspaper industry, which is weighing whether and how to put toll gates on its Web sites, to make up for plummeting print advertising.

Sounds bad, right? But here’s the thing, which in a weird way I think proves my point, at least to some extent. The Times article was based on a recent poll by the Boston Consulting Group. The title of their press release about that poll was News for Sale: Charges for Online News Are Set to Become the Norm as Most Consumers Say They Are Willing to Pay, According to The Boston Consulting Group, the title alone suggesting a different story than the one reported by the New York Times.

From the press release:

New research released today shows that consumers are willing to spend small monthly sums to receive news on their personal computers and mobile devices. In a survey of 5,000 individuals conducted in nine countries, BCG found that the average monthly amount that consumers would be prepared to pay ranges from $3 in the United States and Australia to $7 in Italy.

John Rose, a BCG senior partner based in New York who leads the firm’s global media sector, said, “The good news is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, consumers are willing to pay for meaningful content. The bad news is that they are not willing to pay much. But cumulatively, these payments could help offset one to three years of anticipated declines in advertising revenue.”

It has the same details as the Times, but the spin is completely the opposite. While the Times focuses on how little Americans are willing to pay, the BCG report emphasized the fact that their poll revealed people are willing to pay for news online, concluding that their “findings will benefit newspapers with unique voice and reporting and with strong subscriber bases[; i]n particular, national and local newspapers.” The only other story about this poll I could find was by Media Daily News, and they also spun it as bad news with the headline People Won’t Pay Much For Online Content. Is it possible they’re both taking a self-serving approach trying to persuade their readers that they should be willing to pay more? It seems to me if enough people are willing to pay a little bit, then it should work. Shouldn’t the better approach be to persuade people to pay something rather than berate them for not being willing to pay more?

So here’s a story that’s reasonably important, as what changes are occurring to our news effects every single one of us and the only two news outlets that cover it get it wrong, or at least recast it in a way that seems obviously more beneficial to them. One surprising tidbit that came out of the study is that the one group that appears to be willing to pay more are avid newspaper readers. Doesn’t that suggest that newspapers might be able to successfully move to a more online model? But instead of finding the news encouraging, America’s newspaper of record chastises the people most willing to pay for online content — their readers — for not being willing to pay enough. Strange times indeed.

But online or off, I continue to believe that we have to support traditional media or at least another model that achieves the same goal of having professional journalists as the primary source for news gathering. I absolutely love online media, and especially blogging, but I can’t see how it could supplant boots on the ground, so to speak. As a result, I subscribe to my local newspaper and also to online subscription websites like Salon. I’d encourage you to do the same. I don’t really believe news will disappear, of course. There will always be a demand for it, but the consolidation like we’ve seen in other industries (which I believe is always bad) is taking place. And the diversity that used to be readily available in news is most definitely in decline, even with the explosion of the internet. Information has undoubtedly increased online, but I’m not sure unique news online has kept pace. If we don’t support newspapers, all we’ll be left with is the USA Today. I shudder to think. I now return you to our regularly scheduled beer news.

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