With newspapers having dramatic drops in circulation and the internet quickly becoming the source where almost everyone gets their news, traditional media outlets are scrambling to make a business model that turns a profit. By “profit”, I mean they’re trying to run organizations where their revenues exceed their costs. The problem for a lot of newspapers that are trying to find their way on the internet is their difficulty with making enough advertising revenue to support their operations. Having “free” news online apparently just isn’t working. So the New York Times is following the Wall Street Journal and other Murdoch-run papers by charging a fee to online readers for their material.
Charging online readers is little more than an inconvenience. Compared to many other news outlets, buying a monthly subscription to the online WSJ is pretty cheap. But with internet users used to everything being free, the WSJ and New York Times are predicted by some to lose some valuable customers. This might be true but I support the organizations for the time being in their quest to find a sustainable business model. If the papers aren’t making enough money by having their news be free, what are we to expect them to do?
Now, I’ll segue to the next logical issue: online media accountability. If big news outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal start charging money, intuition would lead me to believe that readers will switch their viewing to free sites. Often times, these free sites are blogs that need not send someone to Baghdad to get the scoop on the current events in Iraq or go to the Detroit airport to interview government officials about somebody’s underwear catching on fire. These blogs, while providing meaningful commentary, do nothing to get news and can be famously unreliable. But Glenn Greenwald recently had a great post discussing the unreliability of America’s media. We may be rightly hesitant to trust blogs but how reliable is the Associated Press or the New York Times anyways? Often times one report, made by an anonymous source, is repeated by every major news source assuming that the facts have already been checked.
Consider the record of the American media over the last two weeks alone. Justin Elliott of TPM documents how an absolute falsehood about the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing — that Abdulmutallab purchased a “one-way ticket” to the U.S., when it was actually a round-trip ticket — has been repeated far and wide by U.S. media outlets as fact. Two weeks ago, Elliott similarly documented how an equally false claim from ABC News — that two of the Al Qaeda leaders behind that airliner attack had been released from Guantanamo — became entrenched as fact in media reports (at most, it was one, not two).
I’d agree that the above misconceptions are indeed engrained right now into most news-followers’ minds as being fact. The media can also be selective in what they print – perhaps not inaccurate but not telling the whole story:
…in 1996, then-Secretary-of-State Madeleine Albright was asked by 60 Minutes about the fact that American sanctions on Iraq resulted in the deaths of “a half million children” — more than the number killed at Hiroshima — and Albright dismissively replied: “We think the price is worth it.” At the time, FAIR documented that while the number of dead Iraqi children — as well as Albright’s quote — was known far and wide in predominantly Muslim countries, it was almost completely blacked-out in the American press. How many Americans know that our sanctions resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children?
Greenwald explains the lazy journalism:
None of the falsehoods documented here will ever lead to any accountability, because the identity of the falsehood-producers will be shielded by their loyal journalist-servants, and the journalists themselves will simply claim that they wrote what they did because their hidden sources told them to.
He makes a good point. Blogs and small-time online news sources are often criticized as using links as citations for their information – links that are often broken, phony, or completely contradict what their personal report says. But what makes newspapers necessarily any better? “Anonymous” sources, like during the Killian documents scandal, can be an easy way for journalists to hide behind false stories that are “too good to check”. On the other hand, like in any other news industry, big companies use their reputation – along with economies of scale – as the main source of their business. The New York Times has much more of an incentive to avoid a scandal than some small-town blogger whose audience is small.
So what’s the solution then? Are we best to be left with blogs? Bailout the newspapers like some people are arguing for? There’s no silver bullet solution to make the media reliable, accountable, and profitable. I agree with many arguments that blogs are particularly more unreliable and unaccountable than newspapers. I think the presence of big media outlets like the Associated Press and New York Times is better than having tens of thousands of blog sites to rely on for the news. But how to solve it? I don’t know. If the Wall Street Journal and New York Times can attract enough people to their sites to warrant their fee-based service, then they should do it. If they can’t, they’ll have to find a way to make money.