Monday 15 October 2018

Why should journalists work for free?

I am writing this in defense of my colleagues in the journalism industry.

Whether in print or online, everything comes at a cost, and in every profession, people expect to be paid for their work, so why should journalists be any different?

But the news that the news portal has put up a paywall for its overseas readers, to be followed by a charge for “premium content” as from tomorrow for local users, has been met with howls of protest.

“Why should I pay to read the news online?” has been the most common refrain.

I can, of course, understand the vociferous objections – no one likes being charged for what was, until now, completely free. But, as the saying goes, nothing in life comes free, and somewhere along the line the costs are being borne by someone, somewhere.

To be fair, the breaking news on TOM will still be free.  So what is going to change? According to Managing Director Adrian Hillman “For €2.99 per week, premium quality will include the e-paper, a full digital version of the printed newspaper, the historical archives that date back to the newspaper’s inception in 1935, a tablet and smartphone version for better functionality and blogs. The subscription will also give people browsing the site from overseas full access to”

The reason for this decision has to be put into context: the changing face of journalism and reading trends has hit the newspaper industry extremely hard. In a Catch 22 situation, printing costs have forced newspapers to raise their prices, leading to dwindling readership as people switched to the Internet for their dose of news instead.  The real time immediacy of the Internet suits today’s impatient reader with a limited attention span to a T, making the purchase of a newspaper the next day (in some people’s minds) even more redundant – “why should I buy a newspaper to read yesterday’s news?”

Even uploading newspaper articles the next day has not really spurred people to go back to buying the morning papers.

The result is that all over the world newspapers are being forced to close down as they are no longer financially viable.

Malta’s situation is no different – online news portals have become the main source of information for many people who want to keep abreast of what is happening. This ‘news on the go’ which comes straight to your smart phone, iPad and PC while you are working means you can be kept updated at the touch of your fingertips. There is one crucial point, however, which many fail to acknowledge. All the news which is coming to you through cyber space originates from newsrooms made up of journalists who are out there, searching, reporting and investigating stores. Interviews, features and opinions columns are likewise being churned out because a professional is  meeting people, doing research and analyzing current affairs in order to put it down in writing.

And if you think that anyone can just post “flash news”, think again – I have seen too many rumours and distorted reports which relied on heresay and misinformation. That is why real journalists are paid to check and double check before going to print, verifying facts and making sure they get all sides of the story.

Many have pointed out that they get their news from the social media, but seem to fail to make the obvious connection: Facebook and Twitter are simply sharing links from news portals which in turn are being uploaded by journalists employed with media houses, many of which also publish their own newspapers. Only, as far as I know, is completely online without a corresponding newspaper.

Most of Malta’s journalists are therefore employed by a newspaper and newspapers basically make their money in two ways – by selling the paper and by selling advertising space. The online versions too sell advertising in the form of banners, but it is common knowledge that the revenue from online advertising is much less than a print ad. Those online ads are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the overheads which a media house has to carry.  It’s not just journalists and editors, but photographers, designers, sales executives and administrative staff we are talking about here – a complete structure of people just like in any other organization. This is apart from contributors and freelancers who also have to be paid. Not to mention the costs of printing the paper and distributing it to your local newsagent at the crack of dawn for you to find when you start your day.

With newspapers, the better your circulation, the more readers you have and the more clients will advertise with your medium. Similarly, with online, the more hits you have, the more likely you are that businesses will want to advertise their product or service.  But the bottom line is that with more readers obtaining their news for free online, it is virtually like giving your newspaper away for free.  Yet your journalists still need to be paid every month, so where is the money going to come from?

Would you, no matter how much you love your profession, go to work every day and not get paid?

Now, there are many who have argued that the paywall and/or subscription model has not worked in other countries either, and that readers will simply not be willing to pay up. This, as Matthew Vella pointed out in his analysis today in Malta Today, remains to be seen.  Another argument is that newspapers which have portals should make a clear distinction between the content being provided in the respective media and not just be carbon copies of each other. Reserving content in newspapers for more in-depth, analytical articles is another route which could be taken and which is one reason the Sunday papers are still doing relatively well. For a newspaper junkie like me, nothing will ever replace the Sunday morning routine of sitting down with my papers during breakfast – or browsing through them at a more leisurely place during the afternoon.

Others have argued that the calibre and quality of the writing in Maltese news portals does not merit asking for payment, which begs the question, why are you reading it if it’s so poorly written? Personally I pick and choose which portals (and papers) I read and which journalists/bloggers/opinion columnists I spend my time on. If I feel a writer or journalist is below standard, I do the same as I would do with a newspaper, and simply flip the page.

The upshot of all this remains that journalists are providing a service to the public and are using their knowledge and skills (not to mention their time) to provide that service. Whether you are reading a story on your Ipad or have the tangible newspaper in your hand, please remember that the byline you see attached to the story belongs to someone who is earning their livelihood from this profession.

You may decide that paying for a news portal is not something you are prepared to do – fair enough. But please do not begrudge journalists for trying to hold on to their jobs.







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