Paying for news and the social contract
Earlier this year I visited an old writing professor — a novelist — and his long-suffering wife. Unsurprisingly, we took up the subject of contemporary writing.
We were talking about fiction, but when I observed that for years I’ve thought some of the best writing that gets done anymore comes out of newsrooms, these wise and decent people readily and heartily agreed.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation in light recent reports that show Google and Facebook are sucking most of the money out of digital advertising, imperiling newsrooms even as our content helps enrich those companies.
It was such a rewarding moment in the conversation: a capital W writer saying that us inky wretches sometimes ring the bell — that beyond doing the basics of reporting the news, holding government accountable, speaking
truth to power and giving voice to the voiceless, we also have among us those able to turn a phrase like few others, and those able to tell human stories that readers love.
The same applies to those in the opinion business, of course. I’m routinely amazed at the columns, editorials, letters and other forms of opinion writing that contribute to what it is we mean when we are talking about contemporary writing.
And yes, the sausage-making nature of our business produces plenty of goofs and fodder for critics. Granted. And it is always right to condemn those mistakes.
The hard truth of that fact makes the standouts all the more amazing. What’s more, the accomplishment of many print journalists is especially remarkable when you consider that they must build their stories on factual reporting, and not depart into fiction, as my novelist friend gleefully reminded me.
If you like print journalism and consider yourself a wellread consumer of the news, you’ve never lived in a better time in some ways. The internet makes it simple and almost al- ways free to read stories from newsrooms big and small all over the globe.
Of course, in other ways, it’s a rough and even dismal time. It costs a lot of money to run a newsroom. And increasingly the market realities for news-gathering mean staffing cuts and cuts to the print product that rob communities of the usefulness and the magic.
Which brings us to the point. What is one’s responsibility when it comes to paying for the news? Shouldn’t supporting newsrooms be a part of the social contract?
In my personal life, I long ago came to believe that if I was going to contribute to society and live a serious life, I owed something to the professions that helped me do so.
After all, I pay for novels. I pay to see fine films and good music to support those artists. I pay to see exhibits, and plays and concerts. I support those contributions to the Big Conversation, and happily so.
I’ve wanted to write a column like this one for years, but the built-in fear of coming off as needy or corny — or greedy — has kept me silent. And in the early days of the Great Decline, such a column would have mostly been read by the paying customers anyway. Making the point would’ve been redundant, and perhaps insulting.
But now we’ve raised a generation that believes all news should be wonderful, plentiful and free. There is the increasingly false hope that online ads are keeping newsrooms afloat.
Given that I read a lot of national and international news, I figured, I ought to subscribe to at least one national paper or site. Somewhere that idea rose to two subscriptions. Given that I read a lot of local news, I of course believe I owe the same to at least one good hometown newsroom.
If I tire of a subscription, I switch to another paper. Obviously, I want to keep up the kind of market competition that keeps journalists on their toes.
Such a practice lets me feel like I’m holding up my end of the social contract. If all consumers of the news followed such a practice, the industry would be a little healthier.
Sure, it’s an idea that might seem so hopelessly prim-andproper as to be worth heaps of derision from the hard-eyed realists of the world.
Except that it’s not. And more of us should say so.
E-mail editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @chuckplunkett