By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Sep. 09, 2019
Fake news has become a scourge, publications are more beholden to advertisers than readers, and it’s more lucrative to cater to echo chambers than to actually inform and guide. The time has come to resume paying for news, irrespective of political leanings.
In 2020, when fake news often seems easier to find than the genuine article, declaring “I believe in the profession of journalism” seems like a preposterous notion. But the words are not mine; they form the opening statement of the Journalist’s Creed, and were written over a 100 years ago by Walter Williams, founder of the world’s first journalism school. The Creed affirms the ethics that govern the work of journalism, which is why, as the field has evolved into a form unrecognisable from a century ago, it retains relevance as the compass that points back to the journalist’s true role in society.
That fake news is a scourge should not come across as revelatory to readers of this publication. The topic has been discussed and debated to the extent where even uncles on sensational family WhatsApp groups think twice before hitting forward. There are many prescribed cures, but in my mind, there will be none more effective than doing what we used to do a few years ago: Actually paying for the news.
But first, let’s see how we got here.
When Williams wrote the Journalist’s Creed in 1914, he wrote that the public journal is a public trust, and that “acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.” But we live in a world where Vineet Jain, managing director of The Times of India’s parent company BCCL, said to the New Yorker, “We are not in the newspaper business. If 90% of your revenues come from advertising, you are in the advertising business.” And this was in 2012.
On advertising, the Creed states “advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers.” But is that what is happening in the news landscape of today?
Assume that you own a moderately successful bakery in the heart of town. Thanks to your prime location, local companies want to set up posters of theirs, in exchange for money — more money than customers give you for croissants and coffees. Who could blame you if you told your store manager to get more advertising space, rather than focus on new brownie flavours?
That painful analogy is exactly what happened to media: As dependency on advertising increased, metrics for success shifted. Advertisers were the main clients, not readers. The digital age has exacerbated this. For many media outlets, sustainability is linked to sellable page views — the source for those views be damned. Akin to the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, some nefarious minds generate high traffic using sensationalism and outright lies. These are easier to generate than actual reportage, and easier to consume for audiences with short attention spans and low tolerance for nuance. We have got to the point where it’s more lucrative to cater to echo chambers than to actually “inform and guide”.
Akin to the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, some nefarious minds generate high traffic using sensationalism and outright lies.
This brings me back to my original point: the time has come, for those who can afford it, to pay for news, irrespective of political leanings. Why?
1. You Get Real News, Not “Content”
Remember: when you don’t pay for something, you are not the customer (there is no better example than Facebook to illustrate this point). When you become a subscriber, the publication will seek to build a long-term association rather than one-time traffic spike. The former is credibility, the latter is clickbait. The former involves reportage, the latter seeks immediate sensationalism to convert your attention into page views.
2. You Get Quality and Diversity
When the motives of the media changes to serve paying readers, quality is improved by hiring fact-checkers, expanding coverage, and investing in more diverse opinions. That last point is important in these polarised times — just because a person is across the aisle doesn’t mean their opinion should be dismissed. Indeed, the best outlets are those that cover all perspectives – the left-wing New York Times often includes conservative opinion, and with 125 Pulitzer prizes, is often called the best newspaper in the world. Closer to home, Newslaundry has a spectrum of voices; whether or not you agree with everything you read, you start considering what other people are thinking.
3. You’ll Support a Profession on Life Support
Journalism is in a crisis. When aspiring scribes read about how Gauri Lankesh was murdered, independent outlets going bankrupt fighting defamation, and cases filed against journalists doing honest coverage, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t want to get into a profession that seems riskier than parachute testing. The career needs enough monetary incentive to attract talent. Better journalists across the board will also help self-regulation and check the rise of sensationalism. This will also lead to stronger legal support and collaboration.
4. You’ll Restore Faith in Journalism
When sensationalism sells, people like Arnab Goswami become poster-persons and sully the good name of journalism. There are also too many “what news media does not want you to see!” from both camps, and that’s damaging the profession as a whole, leaving more people to blindly believe a slick and sensational WhatsApp forward. That’s dangerous. As we’ve seen, all we need is someone with some mischief and an internet connection to stoke flames.
5. Paying Now Will Hopefully Lower Costs in the Future
One common argument against making news paid is “only those who can afford will read and be informed.” There is no clean solution to this, but in the long run, I only hope that publications that have editorial independence are able to gain enough scale to be able to lower costs and expand so more people are served, even if what they pay is a fraction of what we currently do. If nothing else, it’ll have some influence on television news to tone down over-the-top coverage and restore some sense of sanity. Yes, in an ideal world, everyone should have access to credible facts and all perspectives at an affordable price, but until then, we’ll need to work on a least-damage route. In any case, those who benefit now can disseminate our newfound perspective via fact-checking an errant WhatsApp forward, or putting out an opinion on Facebook.
All these might make for good reasons to hit subscribe, but getting people to pay for news is still going to be a challenge, as Reuters reported last year. It also does not mean fake news will end. Indeed, a large portion of fake news is still driven by agenda (hi, IT cells!) rather than profit. But by paying for news, we start tackling some of these problems. Political parties respond to what people want rather than what they actually believe in, so who knows, we might actually live to see an actual debate in parliament.
And that is something worth aiming for, irrespective of political persuasion.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.