The Price We Pay for Not Paying for News
It’s interesting how many businesses and products have disappeared during my lifetime.
Video stores. Typewriters. Pay phones and land lines.
Yellow pages. Paper maps. Encyclopedias.
Repair shops for most anything smaller than a car. It’s all disposable now.
And then there are the businesses that have become a fraction of what they once were. Pantyhose are no longer the fashion staple, yet sales of tights and leggings remain strong. Film is no longer sold at most every checkout and developed at one-hour counters, yet photos are still uploaded and printed, although mostly online.
We click to chat with customer service representatives. Deposit checks from our phones. Scan and bag our own groceries.
This is progress. A move toward greater efficiency.
But a few of the changes are scary. Like what’s happening with newspapers. How they’re slowly getting smaller or going away.
Some might think my nearness to this medium is what’s fueling my fear, that it’s a self-protective worrying for me and my own, but that isn’t the case. What frightens me is that a world without newspapers could be — to quote television host John Oliver — a bit like leaving a “room of seventh-graders to supervise themselves.”
Those who are reading these words, by the way, obviously qualify for being left without supervision. It’s the rest of the population I’m talking about. The ones who would argue, “There’s still broadcast journalism.”
Or, “There’s still internet coverage.” Albeit rife with fake news.
But the difference between those and this is far bigger than many realize.
The way I see it, print guards the many. Broadcast, the few. Newspapers don’t mind warts and body odor and having to dig deeper to find the nuggets that need to be noticed. Broadcast and internet are after the flashy and beautiful, the ones that generate the most clicks. Kardashian ad nauseum.
If you offer most toddlers the choice between a diet of sweets and junk food or vegetables and protein, it’s not hard to guess which they’d take, but which is better? Which will produce a stronger and healthier adult?
A study by the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago found a municipality’s borrowing costs increase when local reporting dies, as much as 11 basis points. The findings couldn’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions.
Without local newspapers, the risk of corruption and political mismanagement grows. Voter turnout declines. But unless you’re in the newspaper business, it’s easy to not pay attention to the misdeeds and corruption routinely uncovered by newspaper reporters. Who will do that if newspapers are gone?
The thing is — how do you fix it? To hope the world chooses to once again embrace print the way it did in the past is naive. Habits have changed. Newspapers were slow to adjust. Hindsight shows all the ways they went wrong, how giving free content for so long created a culture where people became unwilling to pay.
A few years back, I had a second job selling cosmetics for Elder-Beerman, where we handed out free samples so customers would fall in love with our products and want to buy more. But more often than not, when I gave one sample, the customer would push for a second or third.
It was the grown-up version of that old trick-or-treat scam, but rather than, “Can I get another candy bar for my baby brother? He’s home sick with the flu,” I’d hear, “Can I get another for my sister? Her coloring is just like mine so I’m sure she’d use the same shade.”
Instead of being willing to pay for a full size, they only wanted more of what was free.
They didn’t value it; didn’t stop to think about the cost to produce it. They just wanted something for nothing.
I imagine that’s what happened with newspapers. People got accustomed to, and spoiled by, all the free content. They don’t consider that someone, somewhere is working to provide that content and deserves to get paid.
They don’t consider the trouble the room full of seventh-graders will get into once they know the teacher might never return.
Or what plots some politicos are hatching, knowing we’ll be busy clicking kitten videos and catching up on the Kardashians.
I sure hope I’m wrong, but fear we may soon be learning the high price we’ll pay for what’s free.