Sorry, but good media doesn’t come cheap

Not all that long ago, if you wanted to read a magazine or a newspaper, you had to subscribe to it or pay a one-time fee for an issue — the New York Times looks particularly interesting so you grab a copy, you enjoy reading The New Yorker, so you get a subscription. Or you hit up the library, which provides it for customers through its own subscription. Even with subscribers and customers, most media organisations also had to include advertising, because they couldn’t support themselves entirely. Some also received charitable donations and grants, depending on their missions and eligibility for various social supports.

With the advent of the internet, that changed, slowly at first and then more quickly. People wanted free access to everything, including archives — including those that stretch back over a century, requiring painstaking digitising and huge amounts of server space. They wanted not just print media but images and streaming video. They wanted it without paygates and without advertising, without sponsored posts, without requests for donations. And they wanted much more of it, as the sheer volume of media produced today is an order of magnitude larger than that produced in prior years — the New York Times is updating constantly to accommodate readers, for example, and NPR’s website features a host of supplementary content that goes far beyond its on-air programming.

The balance between providing people with information and trying to make it as free as possible has always been tough, because people who work in media need to make a living. Journalists deserve to be paid for their work because it has intrinsic value and they in turn have other life needs they need to pay for — groceries, rent, utilities, books, research materials. So do editors, technical staff, photographers, producers, videographers, and all of the other people who make newsrooms run. Then there’s the infrastructure of the media itself: The overhead of all those offices, those servers, the outside support, the janitors, the secretaries, the people who enable the daily work of a media outlet.

I’m sorry to say that good media doesn’t come free. It can’t. I wish we could intrinsically value information and say that it should be readily available at no charge to anyone who wants to access it, but that deprives the people who are ferreting it out, analysing it, producing it, and packaging it. Those people need to be compensated, and the framework that makes their work possible needs to be supported. Many people don’t like paywalls — I understand why that is, there are definitely some publications I don’t read because I can’t afford a subscription, but on the same token, I recognise that if a site doesn’t have a paywall, it needs to run advertising. To have sponsored posts. To solicit donations, if it’s operating as a nonprofit, to apply for grants, if eligible — and in addition, individual journalists may seek out their own sources of independent funding to work on projects.

This issue has been raging back and forth for some time, but recently I’ve encountered a real uptick in self-righteous irritation at journalists for daring to want fair compensation for their work, and at media organisations for trying to make that possible while covering other expenses. The attitude that media should come totally free is outright disrespectful to journalists, and it’s unbearably frustrating coming from the left, which likes to call itself socially progressive, aware of labour issues, concerned about bringing information to light when it would otherwise remain hidden. The very journalists who are making it possible for them to know about key social issues are being repeatedly slapped in the face every time they moan about paywalls, complain about advertising, or whine about requests for donations.

Producing media is fiendishly expensive. Even something ‘simple’ like an opinion editorial — like this post — requires years of experience and familiarity with the subject, writing skills developed over years and sometimes decades, the ability to conduct research, sufficient resources to set aside time to do it, and the tools to convey it to a reader, whether it be electronically or otherwise. This is work. It’s all work. And it’s notable that new media has a lot of women, and that many of the expectations to work for free or at substandard wages fall specifically upon women in journalism.

You don’t ask a dentist to extract a tooth for free, or complain when your surgeon sends you a bill. When your accountant expects payment before she’ll file your taxes, you pay up. When you go to the grocery store, you don’t express fury that the produce has price stickers on it, and when you attend a concert, you accept that the price of admission comes in actual real money. The same should hold true for media and other things people expect for free, but it doesn’t, and there’s a fundamental disconnect and real disrespect there that is deeply troubling.

In the heated insistence that media organisations offer everything up free of charge, free of ads, free of sponsorship, free of requests for donations, people are utterly devaluing media and they’re also making a request that is functionally impossible to grant. Maybe we made a mistake when we started giving things away, but it’s more complicated than that — for when we give things away, people usually complain about them for different reasons, many of which revolve around compromises of quality that need to be made when no funding is available to raise standards.

Consumers need to start thinking more carefully about the choices they are making, and what they’re really thinking when they do things like complaining about monetising efforts on the part of media organisations. Would you like to work for free, and be continually insulted for suggesting that maybe you deserve payment?

Image: Newspapers, Allan Foster, Flickr