Last month I attended the SXSWi conference, and while I was perusing the trade show I discovered the New York Times booth smack dab in the middle of the exhibit hall. They were doing nifty portraits of people made out of words from our favorite section of the NYT. Naturally, while we waited in line there were people selling subscriptions. Initially, I said no thanks. After all, who subscribes to get the news these days? (My friend signed up for it though and urged me to do it if for no other reason but that they were giving away $25 gift cards to new subscribers.)
After a few minutes of consideration (it was a long line) I finally decided I’d give it a try. The truth is, I regularly read the New York Times—so often in fact that I often run in to their pay wall because I’ve exceeded the monthly quota of free views. I subscribed to the web and phone access subscription package at the rate of $8.00 a month.
In the past few weeks, I’ve developed a sense of real satisfaction in this decision to pay for my news. I realize that there are many other free sources of news, and I know that some people may have valid criticisms of the New York Times as an organization, but the fact is, there is a significant difference in the quality of the writing and reporting for professional news organizations.
The media get a bad rap for being biased, and I think rightly so in many cases. But even with the imperfections in news organizations, it is still worth noting that these are professionals with standards, education, training and a reputation to uphold. For decades, Americans paid for their newspapers without balking—happy to support the press and the dedicated journalists who were there to give us the facts and information we need to make informed decisions.
Suddenly, no one wants to pay for news and information anymore, and the result has been a sharp decline in the quality of information we are getting. Some would argue that the decline in quality is the reason American is abandoning the mainstream media, but I argue that we have contributed to it’s decline by refusing to acknowledge that professional journalists and editors deserve to be paid for their work.
Last month I witnessed one conservative blogger who took a quote from a Muslim leader out of context and made it appear that he had said something completely different from what he said. The conservative blogosphere and social media went into a feeding frenzy over it. But a look at the actual statement that was made in context revealed the true meaning. The willful, deliberate attempt to misrepresent that statement was never questioned, the blogger was never challenged, and he has lost no credibility.
The thing about news is that it is supposed to be based on facts and truth, regardless of whether we like it or not. Not only does our society seem to only want free stuff—we only want free stuff that we agree with. This is a dangerous way to run a democracy.
No, paying for news and information does not mean that you can put yourself on auto-pilot and not question things ever again. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t professional journalists with an agenda, or that some news organizations don’t make bad editorial choices.
What it does mean is that when journalists and news organizations DO make mistakes, they can be held accountable for it. It also means that serious-minded young people can continue to make journalism a career choice, knowing that they can earn enough to pay back student loans while performing a vital function in our society.
The New York Times is not the only news organization that offers paid subscriptions. The Washington Post announced last month that they would be putting up a pay wall, too. And while it’s true that lots of news organizations are still offering their services for free, one has to wonder for how much longer they can survive. Newspapers across the country are folding because they simply can’t continue to put out news for free. It takes time and money to research, report, edit, and distribute (physically or electronically) news.
I, for one, have made the choice to pay for my news because I can’t think of anything more valuable than having regular access to news and information that has been subjected to journalistic standards. Free press doesn’t mean free access to the press. Think about what could be giving up. It’s a lot more than $8.00 a month.
Amanda Quraishi is a blogger, interfaith activist and technology professional living in Austin, Texas. She currently works full time for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a non-profit organization that addresses the issue of homelessness in the U.S., and maintains her own personal blog, muslimahMERICAN.com.