Keep calm and read on

Supporting an uncertain future

Just the other day, a man said to me that, although he rides the train to work every day, he never pays for a transit pass.

His reasoning, he said, was that he only gets checked by peace officers every few months and that the occasional $250 fine worked out to be cheaper than purchasing a $99 pass each month.

I thought about what the man had said for maybe a minute before I decided that he is exactly the kind of person that we should be rounding up and chasing into the sea.

To be clear, this man is not riding the train without a fare because he can’t afford to purchase a pass each month. Actually, he is quite well-off.

This man chooses not to support a service that he uses and benefits from almost every day.

To me, this is the very definition of entitlement. It is the belief that he is the final arbiter of how much this service is worth. And, if he judges the service to be too expensive, then he’ll just take it for free.

He believes that something is owed to him, and this belief is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society since the advent of the Internet.

It’s the kind of thinking behind the pirating of music, movies and television shows.

And, it’s the same kind of thinking that is killing print journalism.

Admittedly, I beat around the bush with that anecdote.

But, at this point, everybody knows that newspapers are dying.

According to the Pew Research Centre, between 2004 and 2014, newspapers lost $30 billion in print revenue and gained only $2 billion online.

As a result, over the last 20 years, 39 per cent of newsroom staff in the United States, or about 20,000 jobs, have been lost.

And this is all because nobody wants to pay $6 per week to subscribe to the Globe and Mail online.

You see, newspapers used to generate most of their revenue from advertising, but studies have repeatedly shown that online advertising is largely ineffectual.

While 80 per cent of news readership is now online, online news only accounts for roughly 20 per cent of revenue.

So, while simply reading the news used to be enough to support the industry, that is no longer the case.

As John Oliver said in his Aug. 7 episode of Last Week Tonight, “We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free, and the longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it.”

In a traditional newspaper, a longer article stretched out the paper and allowed for more advertising space. This incentivized papers to provide more analysis and investigation, as a larger, stronger article would allow for the paper to become more profitable.

Online, however, longer articles take up just as much space as short articles, and advertising revenue is measured in pageviews. Combine that with the fact that online advertising is 75 per cent less effective than print advertising, and you get a recipe for disaster.

Instead of promoting a few, long, high-quality articles, online journalism benefits from producing a high quantity of articles, with the goal of having their readers move from one article to the next very quickly.

In doing so, journalists for online-first publications, such as The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed, have neither the time nor the space to include any real scrutiny or depth.

In a 2009 American senate hearing, David Simon, a former journalist and creator of The Wire, said that the Internet has thus far failed to provide in terms of high-end journalism.

“Instead, [online journalism] leeches reporting from mainstream news publications whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from aggregators and abandon its point of origin, namely the newspapers themselves.”

Simon argued that bloggers and “citizen journalists” lack the training and professionalism to develop sources, chase leads or attend council meetings.

“The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician.”

However, there continues to be a necessity for this kind of reporting. And, Tyler Nagel, a journalism, graphic communication and print technology instructor at SAIT, says he believes that there are still journalists who are well-equipped to meet those needs.

“The future of journalism looks much like traditional journalism in terms of the skills required. Online, this will distinguish real journalism from the drivel generated by the vast majority of bloggers.”

So, while our days of “spreading ink on dead trees” are probably numbered according to Nagel, there is still hope for the future. Despite concerns that our migration online has hindered the profitability of our industry, ultimately the Internet is a tool that will propel journalism forward.

“Journalism is changing in terms of the news delivery mechanisms and the composition and fractionalization of audiences. Geography is no longer a limiting factor, and niche publications that were never possible are now thriving.”

But, without a way for journalism to make enough money to support professional journalists, the Internet might ultimately become just a very complicated soapbox for bloggers.

The service we provide is facing an uncertain future, and it is a future entirely dependent upon your support.

So, I urge anybody reading this to support proper journalism where you can, whether it is The Weal, The Herald or The Globe and Mail.

It helps us all pay our fare.

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