This post was originally published on Medium on Feb. 18, 2021.
Journalism is not like other media and it actually shouldn’t be.
How can people pay for Netflix or Disney+ or Spotify or video games or any of the other media options outside of journalism but not journalism?
Because those things are not journalism and have an entirely different value proposition.
But hey, let’s entertain the question. Why them and not us?
I’ll tell you a secret. My household’s total yearly spending on streaming platforms and books is a fair bit more than what I spend on journalism subscriptions and donations. I would wager that I’m not alone in this.
Why? For many of the same reasons I suspect that a lot of people spend money on those things and not as much on journalism.
I know exactly what the money I’m spending on the platforms and books is going to provide to me and the money I spend on journalism is more akin to a gambling patronage than the purchase of a product. I give money to journalism orgs because I’m among the converted believers who are invested in the mission and importance of Journalism, not because it reliably delivers value to me.
Let’s use Netflix as an example.
I know exactly what I’m going to get because there are lists that come out months in advance that tell me what I’m going to get. Signing up is easy. Paying is easy. Managing multiple profiles is easy. Sharing with my family is easy.
This is true for pretty much all of the streaming platforms. Same with Hulu. Same with Disney+. Same with Spotify. And so on and so on.
In order for me to have a sense of what I’ll get from any one news organization, I need to know the following things and then make a best guess of what’s likely to result from the mix:
- past coverage
- current events they are likely to cover
- do they run wire coverage
- if they have funded reporting projects from a special grant
- what their top reporters are known for covering
- what their editor and publisher’s editorial priorities are
- what their publisher’s current opinions are about democracy and objectivity
- what’s their current staffing level
- whether they have let their copyeditors go
- who owns them
- how competitive they attempt to be with other newsrooms
- how old and white the newsroom and leadership is
- if they’re national, have they historically given a damn about things that happen beyond the East Coast?
After I do all that work, then I can sort of guess at what’s likely to be covered and even then it’s a moving target.
The only way it becomes accurate to compare paying for Netflix to paying for journalism is if Netflix started airing content that wasn’t touched by editors, had shows that were missing episodes because budget cuts meant they just didn’t have someone to make a few episodes here and there but still expected I could understand what was going on despite gaps in the middle of a season, if I had to re-log in between each thing I want to watch because the platform keeps logging me out and if the quality and utility of the content was a surprise of variation and then blamed my lack of subscription money for these shortcomings. I wouldn’t buy a subscription to Netflix if I didn’t currently see anything on there that I was interested in or had utility to me and Netflix kept asking me to buy it anyway just in case something comes up and maybe in a few months, they’d suddenly have one really great movie that was worth my time. The only real similarity there is between Netflix and journalism is the tendency to whitewash everything and make stuff centering women and people of color short-runs or one-offs.
My 74-year-old relative with dementia can navigate Netflix. She cannot navigate her local newspaper’s website or app on her tablet.
The idea that the user experience of the delivered product of most journalism is anywhere near the quality of any of other media is in many cases a delusion of grandeur and those orgs that do it well are more often doing it well by industry standards, not in comparison to other forms of media. This is not a judgement on the folks that are actually building their news orgs platforms or cobbling together all the different vendors, it’s a judgement of the expectations publishers have of those folks while simultaneously underpaying them, fighting against their unionization, giving their budgets to shareholders and otherwise making this task impossible to accomplish.
“We can’t create that value, quality and experience without people giving us money.” This industry has money. Much of it’s being siphoned off by hedge funds, spent poorly by leadership or pocketed by owners. What guarantee do people have that the same won’t keep happening with their money too?
Streaming services are offering vast selections of new and classic evergreen content from multiple production companies, familiar IP and largely intuitive usable interfaces. They’re not trying to replicate some other form of media because it’s the only way their chronologically senior leadership will feel like it’s “real”. And importantly for many subscribers, they can deliver something of value for each member of the family. A Netflix subscription in a household has content for every member of the household regardless of their age or interests.
“If people can pay for other media, people can pay for journalism.”
If we want journalism to be situated in comparison to other forms of media and paid for as such, it has to deliver the value, quality of experience and reliability of other forms of media.
“Journalism is essential to our communities and democracy. It can’t exist unless people pay for it.”
If we want journalism to be situated in comparison to other forms of services that people need and we chose as a society to financially support directly and indirectly because it is necessary, it needs to deliver equitably, reliably and as accessibly as other services are compelled to do.
Right now, much of journalism does neither of these things consistently or reliably.
It is fundamentally misguided to compare journalism to other forms of media.
We cannot simultaneously claim that journalism is a unique and special service and also that people should pay for it just like everything else. You can either be unique and special or you can be just like everything else. If you’re going to be just like everything else, then you are going to have to compete with everything else.
If you want someone to spend their money on your organization’s journalism because they believe in the importance of journalism, your organization’s journalism has to actually be important. To be important, it has to be both useful and usable.
It is easier for a person to hedge their spending risk in pretty much every other form of media than it is for them to do so in paying for journalism.
A lot of people don’t have the money to make a bad bet. Do the journalism that helps people navigate their lives and make decisions that will help them increase their means and journalism goes from being a bad bet to a logical investment.
Journalism is not like other media and it shouldn’t actually try to be, beyond the much-needed improvement to usability, experience and technology. What journalism should fundamentally be to people is a service. The nature of journalism — one of the things that makes it so important to a society that the freedom to practice it is enshrined in our Constitution and is a metric for freedom around the world — should be such that the motive to generate revenue is the means by which it accomplishes the creation and distribution of accurate information to be used by people rather than the motive to generate revenue is the reason for distributing information.
The difference between organizations that do the former and the organizations who do the latter is significant.
Note on republished posts: In an effort to consolidate and preserve my online work, I'm re-publishing my own writing on this site. Posts will stay live and archived on their original sites for the sake of preserving links (for as long as those sites are still live). Content produced for other publications will remain unique to those publications, but I will include links on my work page.