Pay­ing for news and the so­cial con­tract

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Chuck Plun­kett

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 cplun­kett@den­ver­post.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @chuck­plun­kett

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