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How Do We Put a Price on News?

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Friday May 22nd, 2009 | 0 Comments

Would you rather be fired or told that your work has no value?
I’d prefer being fired, since I enjoy the work I do and shudder to think that it has no value. But here’s the rub: it has no value. Or, at the very least, its value is rapidly dwindling.
That is obvious to me based solely on the amount of money I earn as a freelance journalist today, as compared to the amount I earned a year ago. Earnings are down, as they say in the financial section. Way down.
But in this recent essay in the Christian Science Monitor, Robert Picard, who writes about the media industry and is professor of media economics at Sweden’s Jonkoping University, argues that journalists are getting just what they deserve these days. And that’s not much.


In the past, he says, journalists provided economic value based on three skills: “Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively.” These are skills that most citizens lacked. But information technology has changed all that, he argues: “Today all this value is being severely challenged by technology that is ‘de-skilling’ journalists. It is providing individuals – without the support of a journalistic enterprise – the capabilities to access sources, to search through information and determine its significance, and to convey it effectively.”
I agree, but only up to a point. It’s clear that any non-journalist can gather information and write on a topic. And it’s clear that they’ll work for nothing. And it’s clear that this willingness makes it harder for me to make a living wage. It’s simple supply and demand.
But a blogger’s product is often not a news story. News is – or at least, should be – based on original reporting.
Instead, the product is often a musing – maybe with an intelligent, informed option. Sometimes it is enlightening; oftentimes it inspires debate. Does it have value? Sure. But could it exist if not for the original news stories that serve as source material? No, I do not believe it could. TriplePundit.com would not exist – at least, not in its current form. (I sometimes base blog postings for Triple Pundit on news stories I write for other pubs.)
For that reason, newspapers, and journalism in all its forms, must survive. They have to find a path back to sustainability. So the question is not whether journalists deserve a living wage – they do. The question is how will they retain one?
Readers want news stories. It’s not their fault that newspapers’ business model is failing. But will they pay for online news? That’s uncertain at best. Not in newspaper’s current form, anyway…
So this is where Picard’s essay gets interesting. He suggests that in order to survive, media companies need to differentiate their products from the pack. It’s not just bloggers who re-report news that appears in other venues – newspapers often do it, too.
Picard writes: “One cannot expect newspaper readers to pay for page after page of stories from news agencies that were available online yesterday and are in a thousand other papers today. Providing a food section that pales by comparison to the content of food magazines or television cooking shows is not likely to create much value for readers. Neither are scores of disjointed, undigested short news stories about events in far off places.”
To survive, he posits, news magazines need to provide more than a recap of the week’s news. Daily newspapers should hone in on the news that happens locally in order to put themselves into leadership positions within localities. “The Boston Globe, for example, could become the national leader in education and health reporting because of the multitude of higher education and medical institutions in its coverage area. Not only would it make the paper more valuable to readers, but it could sell that coverage to other publications,” Picard writes.
Of course, an oversupply of free news is not unique to mainstream media. It happens within specialty journalism, as well. You are reading Triple Pundit right now, but there seems no shortage of sites popping up that address many of the same topics we do: sustainable businesses, social entrepreneurship, clean energy, etc.
I contribute to 3P because I like the content. I contribute because I feel like readers care about the content. And I contribute because it helps me develop news stories.
So why are you here? What’s 3P worth to you? And how, in your opinion, how can 3P not only survive, but also thrive?
Journalists are valuable. We need them to act as watchdogs, as interpreters and as storytellers. The mediums and instruments they use might change, but the reporting must remain.
(photo courtesy sskennel.)

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