To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. —Henry David Thoreau
That just describes my morning, which started at 4:00 AM. Rain started falling while I was walking the dog. I accidentally punted a cat in the dark when we returned. I forgot to block the hallway and the damp dog decided to get in bed with Kat. I spilled my coffee. Then, immediately after clicking the link to a story that sounded interesting, a box pops up telling me this is the last of my free articles for the month. I’ve had better mornings.
The last item, the one about using my last free click for the month is happening more often. As an increasing number of newspapers have had to turn to paywalls to pay the bills, the number of reliable news sources accessible at any given time begins to shrink. A prime example is Business of Fashion, a UK-based fashion magazine that exists primarily online. Having been free since their inception, I’ve come to rely on its up-to-date information of everything going on in the fashion industry. Their news is not only timely but largely reliable. Starting this week, however, they’ve put everything behind a rather expensive paywall. Sure, it comes out to less than the price of a cup of coffee per day if I pay for the whole year in advance, but that would be quite a dent in our cash flow. So, I’ll have to deal with the five articles a month to which I am now limited.
Am I just cheap or is there a problem here?
Social News Junkies
I’ve always had an addiction of sorts to news. At one point, back when print was the only option, I subscribed to three different daily papers, four weekly magazines, and six monthlies. Our recycling bin was always overflowing and there was never any shortage of newsprint for craft projects. Mind you, at that particular point in time, I wasn’t writing a damn thing. All I did was take pictures all day. No one was interested in my opinion and I was much more careful about when and where I expressed such.
A lot has changed over the past 30 years, though. Print subscription rates have gone up, dramatically in some cases. Every major news and information source, from the New York Times to National Public Radio to your local television station has an online presence and, in most cases, when they first came online they were free. The number of news and information sources became so numerous that they gave rise to aggregators such as Huffington Post. The upside of aggregators is that they assembled all the really important stuff from a myriad of different sources. The downside was that they did so with a very marked and obvious political bias. Next came social media, which aggregated the aggregators, and as the volume of viewers grew into the millions the number of sources with blatant political motivations grew as well.
Now, we are faced with two problems. First, the original model of relying on display ads to pay the bills hasn’t worked. Over the past three years, the number of newspapers putting the majority of their content behind a paywall has tripled. They’ve had no choice. They still need to pay the bills. At the same time, however, the reliability of all news/information sources combined has declined, dramatically.
Freedom Of Information
Once upon a time, there was a reliable source of global information that was available to everyone: the public library. Any time I came across a reference to a source to which I wasn’t already subscribed, I could make my way to the library’s periodical section and most usually find the source I needed. Libraries are still there, of course, but as demand for space and revenue has shifted, resources have been removed from periodical subscriptions in favor of Internet needs. Walk into the beautiful downtown branch of the Indianapolis Public Library and the periodicals section is not only significantly smaller, it’s also hidden, relegated to a corner of the second floor.
While the shift away from print subscriptions seems to make sense on the surface, it hasn’t resulted in more online subscriptions. While libraries have invested thousands of dollars in computers with Internet access, those services don’t necessarily include online periodical subscriptions. Why? The majority of public computer use is not for reading periodicals. Job searches and educational programming dominate, right after checking one’s Facebook status. So, if the library doesn’t subscribe to the print edition of a periodical, access is still just as limited as it would be if one had just stayed home.
At the same time, as biased and unreliable sources of information increases, many sources we’ve long considered reliable are either downsizing or going away altogether. Titles that were once mainstays, such as Newsweek and US News And World Report are barely recognizable in their online forms. Reliable, honest information is quickly going the way of the Dodo bird.
Not As Informed As We Think
An informed electorate is necessary for a democracy to work. The entire system dissolves when the people doing the voting are no longer getting reliable, trustworthy information from which they can make intelligent decisions.
Look at us. Look at this election cycle. Consider the absolute nonsense one hears being spouted at political rallies. This is not an informed electorate. In fact, I would be willing to go out on a limb and guess that, at the very least, 70 percent of those who are voting in the upcoming election are making their decision based in part on incorrect and unfounded information. Whether it has come from Fox News or CNN or MSNBC is irrelevant. None of them are reliable. None of them can be trusted. Yet, those are the sources from which an overwhelming number of Americans get their news.
We need new sources of news. We need to know that the articles we’re reading have been vetted, that sources have been confirmed, and that the people and organizations doing the reporting are being held responsible for what they report. Americans, and citizens around the world, need to once again be able to trust the news and information they receive.
At the same time, I am of the opinion that there needs to be a greater distinction between actual news, that information that directly impacts our lives, and more casual forms of information. I may go to the newspaper for the box score of last night’s Cubs/Indians game, but if I want to know the ridiculous pre-game superstitions of the starting lineup I should have to find a different source. Our propensity for finding everything in one place is severely diminishing the value of everything we consume and news is at the very top of that list.
We’re Tired Of This Shit
A new research report from the Pew Research Center states that “More than one-third of social media users are worn out by the amount of political content they encounter.” I have to wonder if any part of that fatigue comes from the fact that, not only has this election cycle gone on far too long, we know all too well that the information being distributed through social media is either horribly slanted or an outright lie. We’re exhausted from trying to parse out what is true (very little) with what isn’t (far too much).
Something in my gut tells me that if the good folks at the Pew Center were to ask, they’d find that a large number of people are equally exhausted with all the social media content they encounter, with the possible exception of kitten videos. In an effort to make themselves more attractive to the masses, news sources have too often become little more than slightly modified versions of what People magazine once was, while sources such as People have become more like The National Enquirer. When we sit down to read what we presume to be a legitimate news article, we shouldn’t have to wonder whether the content and its sources are legitimate!
I understand the need for publications to resort to paywalls. The ad model just doesn’t work for them in an online environment. However, the more distance we put between the American populace and legitimate news sources, the few that remain, the more our democracy continues to erode. Uninformed people make stupid decisions in the voting booth. As bad as this election cycle has been, it can, and will, get worse. We need news sources that are reliable, honest, and accessible. Short of that, there is no hope for democracy to return to our country.