The Original Sin Of News Content On The Internet

There’s no doubt journalism—particularly local journalism—is in crisis. But how does this knowledge help solve the problem vs. perpetuate it?

For proof one need look no further than this recent very comprehensive report published in the Columbia Journalism Review. Showing erosion in the industry accelerating in the wake of the pandemic. Including the complete shutdown of nearly 5 dozen news organizations since the start of the pandemic alone.

And the very real threat—actually, it’s way beyond a threat now—to local newsrooms poses real peril especially when competent coverage of local issues ranging from vaccines distribution to voting rights is more imperative than ever.

But is finding a way to reverse this exact trend, to attempt to right sinking ships, the best way to address the problem? Often, it’s discussed as the only way. And maybe it isn’t.

What I see most often identified as the key to turning the industry around particularly at the local and regional level is getting people to pay for online subscriptions to local news outlets. And somehow stop bristling at the idea of a paywall.

So maybe readers instead need to be offered something a little different, something they won’t be mad at paying a little bit of money for.

Because we’ve all been conditioned to the idea that most internet news content is free for more than 20 years now. As I started off today by saying: It’s one of the internet’s original sins. Just a few exceptions. And of course everybody paid the price anyway because you had to give up a lot of personal data in exchange. But nobody really cared about that until recently. 

When I was an executive at Yahoo!, and trying to prove that streaming was useful for coverage of live news events and not just archived material, I was sometimes willing to pay producers for content. But I never needed to. None of the local stations and/or publications ever asked for it. None. Why? They saw what I could offer as a way of getting free nationwide distribution for their own small/mid-size operations, without cannibalizing their own audiences, and they didn’t really have functioning websites of their own. Or if they did, they were getting no traffic without the support of a major portal, so each time they had overall budget cuts, which have basically always been cyclical in local newsrooms, the online staff would get cut first, and then they’d have to start all over again. The only organizations that ever told me “no” at the time was because “our news director doesn’t believe in the internet.” Not because they saw their content as a way of making significant extra money or better providing their services to the audiences they served.

Yahoo! delivers live news content, circa 2000

Now, Yahoo! did do deals with the ABCs of the world that involved some money. But even then, I think I’m far enough outside my NDA to say that we had a deal with Bloomberg on the table where we’d have access to all their content and they’d have access to our streaming experience and platform with no money changing hands. Just “eat what you kill” in terms of advertising. (That deal never happened for unrelated reasons.) 

So while I’m not blaming local content producers for where this went and is going, at the beginning, either they were shortsighted, or already struggling to an extent where they could not invest in building strong, value-added sites. I often pointed them to the Wall Street Journal as an example of the only ones  doing it right at the time, but they didn’t see how their stuff would ever have that kind of value when they couldn’t even get people to look at it online on their own websites for free.

Fast forward 20 years and we’re still there by-and-large. Although now the New York Times and Washington Post have figured it out, more than a little. But not much anybody else still. A lot of internet content, particularly streaming content, is still exclusively ad-driven, and the ads are still just online versions of TV ads. This laziness on the part of advertisers and ad agencies is one of the most astounding things to me about the development of the internet, when there’s all kinds of interactive stuff they could be doing, but that’s a different story. (It’s just a shame, though.)

Meanwhile, I live on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. I do not subscribe to my local paper online. Why? Even in the “before” days, I only probably bought that paper 1/2 a dozen times a year. Of the 3 free stories I get from them per month without paying, about 2 of 3 don’t deliver on what the headline leads me to expect. I get better and timelier info from the Cape Cod NPR station which I DO pay for voluntarily. And from sites like the National Weather Service. And finally, the info on my various local town message boards on FB, etc., while not particularly accurate all the time, is actually better, more timely, and more directly of import to me than most of what’s in the “main” local paper. Plus, since I know many of the people who are posting locally at least in passing, I know who is generally trustworthy and who isn’t. Just as I know which tidbits I pick up from my neighbor when I help her walk her dogs, or go into town to get coffee, are probably at least somewhat accurate, and which require more follow-up if it’s something in which I’m interested, and which I can immediately dismiss out of hand completely.

So I’m not sure “saving” my local newspaper would be a panacea for anything. (I’m not saying it’s threatened; IDK. And a second paper has sprung up here recently, which may turn out to be more compelling: we’ll see.) If people aren’t paying for their online content while no longer buying the physical paper, and that’s what’s destroying the industry, it’s partly because they’re used to not paying for any online news content for years and years and years and that’s going to be a hard habit to break. Ans I think we’re also underestimating whether the local content they want is being delivered in the way they want even if they are willing to pay. Especially since it’s still in the hands of people who were not nimble enough to figure out how to impactfully deliver it via a different platform in the first place. Which includes clumsy paywalls.

So, what then? I’ve said before and still think part of the problem these days is thinking in terms of importance of publications. And of keeping publications afloat. In other words what’s being identified as the problem, may not really be the problem. It probably was the problem at one point, but now it’s probably too late.

Yes, you still need some big-budget outfits to chase down stories individual reporters would never be able to do because they don’t have the resources.

Outside of that thought, I’m more willing to trust individual reporters than publications I could care less about. And I will and do pay for them on Medium, on Substack, wherever. Heck, maybe they can do impactful investigative pieces if there were more efficient ways to crowd fund their efforts. This is already happening in Korea where MSM is less trusted even than it is here. I’m not saying hyper local, which has also failed. But propping up failing local papers and stations because they’re the only thing we’ve got might not be 100% of the solution. And obviously I don’t even think it’s 10%. It’s a harder thing to do, but amplifying the voices of individual reporters who count the most locally could count for a lot more, and revitalize this dying area of journalism a lot faster and a lot more dynamically with probably a lot less institutional investment or involvement necessary.