Paying for the News Upfront, Part 2

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 10:03:00 AM

After what seems like years but in fact has only been months of reading everything available and going to endless panel discussions, lectures and conferences about the state of the News Biz, we’ve finally come to a conclusion. We’d like to say we were the first to have this immortal insight, but in fact it seems to be the same conclusion now being reached by our colleagues at other papers large and small. 

Consumers of news are going to have to pay for the privilege from now on. For a generation or more advertisers have picked up the check, but that seems to be over. 

Why not go online only? Well, despite the sorry state of print advertising revenue, it still exists, though less than it used to be. Online advertising revenue is much, much worse, essentially non-existent for most papers. There’s been a folk belief that anything Internet should always be free, coupled with a lack of awareness about where the “news” on popular sites like Daily Kos and Huffington Post originates. Some papers (like all the Bay Area papers owned by Media News which now ring Berkeley) are starting to charge readers for online access.  

Anyone who suggests that part-time non-professional volunteer reporters online, or even bloggers, will be able to fill the gap hasn’t studied the volunteer online press very carefully. While there are some competent reports in such publications, there’s a frightening amount of blatant fabrication and boring self-promotion as well.  

Serious career reporters and competent editors are needed for high-quality news reporting regardless of medium, and someone has to pay them. Printing and distribution account for only a third of the cost of print papers, so eliminating them isn’t the silver bullet it might seem to be.  

Some papers are compensating for loss of ad revenue by dramatically raising their home delivery and per issue prices, often unfortunately coupled with cost reductions which dramatically lower the quality of their product (the San Francisco Chronicle.). Charging more while giving the readers less is the solution du jour, but it doesn’t seem likely to succeed in the long run.  

Molly Ivins once said about this tactic: “I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying—it’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”  

Others, including us, have suggested that newspapers should become nonprofits, and that would solve the problem. We’ve read a lot and tested the waters in the last couple of months, and like most others now believe that won’t work. The money still has to come from somewhere, and—no surprise—foundations are already hurting for funds in this economy. 

But newsgatherers have to pay rent like everyone else, so if there are going to be papers there will have to be a solution. Bigger richer organizations have spent big bucks on massive market research efforts and learned little.  

The bottom line question is still the same: who’s going to pay for reporting? And by reporting we don’t just mean the kind of flashy investigative spectacles whereby shocked readers learn that athletes take drugs. We also mean the more mundane local stories: “There’s a cement factory going in next to your block.” Reporting includes compiling the often underestimated calendar sections which in community papers provide news not available anywhere else: “There’s a special meeting of the school board which will decide whether to close playgrounds at neighborhood schools on weekends.” (Aside to the nervous: neither example is real.) The Planet’s calendars are the best-read part of the online paper.  

Our first experiment with solving this problem was establishing our Fund for Local Reporting. We’ve been very gratified to see that hundreds of citizens have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the fund, but it’s now clear that voluntary contributions from a select group whose civic consciousness is above average won’t cover our costs for a paper if we want to maintain the current quality level. So we’re moving on to Experiment Number Two. 

We’re starting the transition from completely free distribution to asking for some form of payment from every reader. Our colleagues at the Piedmont Post have persuaded more than 2,000 readers (in a population of about 10,000) to become “underwriters” of their community paper at a variety of levels. Underwriters get home delivery by carrier, though individual copies are also available for a minimal donation at Piedmont’s very few retail locations.  

Here in Berkeley and the rest of the urban East Bay we have many more potential retail distribution possibilities: convenience stores, cafes, laundromats, bookstores, medical offices—anywhere people might want to find some reading matter. Maintenance of free boxes on the street has become more and more difficult, and coin boxes are vandalized by would-be thieves, so we plan to move distribution indoors, gradually over the summer.  

A “suggested minimum donation” of $2 will be asked for each copy, to be either deposited in a sealed box or paid directly to retailers who are willing to handle cash and make change. As we reach critical mass of such locations, the outside free boxes will be gradually removed.  

We’ll publish a list of outlets where the Planet can be found in every issue. These will benefit from the added visitors to their establishments, and they’ll also share in the donated revenue. We’ll also deliver bundles of papers to institutions and even homes where someone can take collection responsibility. 

As this system becomes established, we’ll be working to set up home carrier delivery for regular donors, and online access will eventually be limited to such donors as well. Everyone who’s already either a subscriber or a contributor to the Fund for Local Reporting will automatically be put on this donor list, and we’ll be very actively looking for more new sustaining donors like these (hereinafter “sustainers” for short.)  

How can you, the individual reader, help in our transition to reader-funded sustainability? Please look around your neighborhood for likely distribution points and let us know what you find out, by phone, mail or e-mail. Talk to your friends, and get them to sign up to be sustainers, and of course sign up yourself if you haven’t already done so.  

Current rough calculations suggest that if 5,000 of the Planet’s more than 30,000 readers in the urban East Bay signed up to contribute at least $10 a month, the paper would be sustainable.  

We think that if we all work together, that’s a goal we can achieve.