• U.S.

What Price Journalism? What Would You Pay?

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

Will ___ save journalism? Lately it seems easier to find ruminations on that subject than to find journalism itself. With advertising down and the Internet making information seem free and easy, anxious journos (for whom “save journalism” equals “save my job”) have suggested numerous white knights for their profession, including Amazon’s Kindle, philanthropists, micropayments, the government and the new iPhone. (Is there an app for that?)

Or coffee! Maybe coffee will save journalism! In June, MSNBC signed a deal to make Starbucks the official caffeinated beverage of its talk show Morning Joe. In 2008 a chain of TV affiliates cut a deal to place McDonald’s iced coffee on anchor desks.

(Watch an interview with Joe Scarborough.)

Those who can’t sell coffee can try to sell Kaffeeklatsches. The Washington Post was embarrassed this month by a leak of its plans to charge up to $25,000 for lobbyists and executives to sponsor “salons” with public officials and the reporters who cover the fields they work in, like health care. “Spirited? Yes,” a flyer said of the promised talks. “Confrontational? No.” Journalism? Someday it just might be.

Some of these experiments may seem ethically dubious or just icky, but they’re also examples of a simple truth: whether you read it online or watch it on TV, there’s no such thing as free news. Someone, somewhere, is paying for it, be it in money or in time. And journalists are under pressure to become more creative in paying that bill.

(See the top 10 newspaper movies.)

Once, said payment came from the audience or from advertisers. Now the Internet offers all-you-can-eat info, yet advertisers are unwilling to pay anywhere near the same rates for online ads as they do for print or TV ads, and the Web has all but supplanted newspaper classifieds.

The New York Times is reportedly readying plans to start charging for online access, while a group of newspaper execs has been looking into the legality of banding together to do the same. News outlets are selling software, merchandise, club memberships — anything that people are more willing to pay for than, well, news.

(Watch an interview with New York Times editor Bill Keller.)

It’s possible, though, that nothing will save the journalism business — at least as we know it and pay for it today. That doesn’t mean journalism will go away. Reporting won’t go away, though foreign bureaus might. Information won’t go away. Opinion certainly won’t.

But somebody will have to pay — even, or especially, for the free stuff. Some journalism could become a kind of volunteer work, performed by eyewitnesses, passionate amateurs or professionals in other fields who use journalism as a loss leader to sell their books or build their brands. (That’s the model of the legion of unpaid writers at the Huffington Post.) Even if you filter your own news from Twitter, you’re paying in time and effort.

(Watch an interview with Arianna Huffington.)

Those seeking to pay the bills through full-time journalism could find different paymasters. The Associated Press recently started taking investigative reports from four nonprofit journalism groups. And if newspapers can’t afford investigations, advocacy groups and think tanks — which already hire research pros — could do their own: a kind of piecemeal return to the old partisan press.

Meanwhile, the advertisers who are loath to pay for banner ads at websites have shown interest in, as they say, more “integrated” forms of product-plugging. Some news sites sell companies “sponsored content” mentioning their products, while independent blogs collect payoffs for posts — positive ones only, please — about merchandise. (Where did I learn about that? From the New York Times, which had to report the story without sponsorship from Healthy Choice.)

The media of the future may be a combination of all this, plus old-school outlets that survive. They could produce good journalism. (After all, traditional news outlets aren’t without potential conflict either; I review HBO series even though HBO’s owner owns TIME.) But they may include funding models far different from the old church-and-state separation of content-making and money-raising.

(See the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of 2009.)

Journalists would be foolish, though, to think we can guilt people into buying our work in part to preserve our uniquely holy calling. (Try arguing that to a laid-off factory worker.) As with any other service, people will buy it or they won’t. Yes, news audiences will have to recognize that “free” information may mean more sponsorships and piper payers calling the tune. But journalists will have to accept that some members of our audience are, in fact, willing to make that trade-off, just as they live with product placement in movies.

We may not like it, but there it is. Producing something that someone is willing to pay for — while not selling out — may make our work possible. Whereas moralizing, plus a buck or so, will buy you a cup of robust, piping hot Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. That one was free, fellas.

See 10 perfect jobs for the recession — and after.

See 10 ways Twitter will change American business.

See TIME’s journalism covers.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com