April 19, 2011

Get Interested

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Several weeks ago, The New York Times introduced a paywall for online readers. The publication now limits those viewers with no home subscription to 20 free articles each month, with a variety of subscription packages available for purchase beyond that. According to The Times, in “Letter to Our Readers: Times Begins Digital Subscriptions” published March 28 — the day of the program’s implementation, the digital subscription is “an investment in our future. It will allow us to develop new sources of revenue to strengthen our ability to continue our journalistic mission as well as undertake digital innovations that will enable us to provide you with high-quality journalism on whatever device you choose.”

I (as did many readers, I imagine) discovered the new policy when a screen appeared blocking access to an article. Consequently, I initially considered this a blight on my day and (perhaps fueled by a general and sweeping distrust of business and corporate interests) a general menace. With a tendency towards idealism, I lamented the fact that reading the news isn’t free (because everybody should have access) but have since considered the situation differently.

The print edition of The New York Times costs money — it costs money to produce, deliver and read. The same information, plus videos and multimedia features, were all offered online for free up till now. It would have made no sense for anybody to buy a physical newspaper, and declining revenue from print subscriptions could put the quality of the paper in jeaopardy.

On the other hand, eliminating or significantly limiting online content cuts off access for many for whom a print subscription proves impractical (students, for example). Online access, for free or through a subscription, increases the ubiquity of the news, allowing more people the opportunity to read it — a general positive. Even under the paywall, readers unable or unwilling to pay still have access to limited content and unlimited stories accessed via links or search engines — the program avoids total exclusivity.

Yet, aside from the logic and practical necessity on the part of The New York Times Co., the idea that journalism should be free brings up questions of other possible sources of funding, the role of a newspaper and the implications of serving various interests.

Journalists require living wages in order to write, and the production process has a cost. This needn’t necessarily lead to corporate business models — there are government funded news sources. National Public Radio, for example, is an independent radio organization that has a history of receiving federal funding. As broken down on its official website, NPR still receives some federal funding. Additionally, the organization earns revenue largely through programming fees: the prices that member stations pay NPR to air their programs. But NPR also has other sources of funding, including grants, sponsorships and listener donations. NPR’s particular identity also promotes what its website describes as “the ‘halo effect’ of a positive association with the NPR brand,” which would imply that NPR escapes the need to actively promote corporate interests.

Nevertheless, NPR’s funding simply shows that even not-for-profit models depend to some extent on corporate sponsorships. Whether this affects the content of the programming or not is beside the point; the issue is that it could.

Print media functions differently than the radio, though. There are no member stations to pay The New York Times for airing and, therefore, no intermediary between the news organization and the readers. The more revenue news media generate directly from consumers, the less they need to seek from corporate donations, advertisers or the Federal Government. Any business has an interest in catering to its source of income; if that source of income is the reader, then the interests of producer and consumer align … ideally.

In reality, The Times, as well as most media, relies heavily on advertisers for revenue. While this does not have quite the same effect as direct corporate sponsorship, the prominent advertisements in the publication could theoretically correlate to the type of content (or lack thereof) that runs. Advertisers target consumers and consequently seek out publications already reaching their particular markets. This means that corporations advertising in a publication most likely want to reach the consumer that publication already appeals to; in other words, the advertisers are probably not trying to change the content of the publication.

While The Times, like any independent professional news organization, has the infrastructure in place to separate the business of the paper from its content, at the end of the day, it is one company with common interests. Nonetheless, when a corporation regularly pays huge sums of money for prominent ads, it would not be in the publication’s interest to also print stories about that corporation’s corruption and evildoing (and yes, some corporations are corrupt and do evil) — even when the publication is so angelic that it grants halos by association.

The New York Times paywall symbolizes the hypothetical possibility that a newspaper can depend financially on readers and avoid manipulating the content of the publication in order to manipulate us. While The Times still depends on advertisers, the paywall represents that small amount of extra interest The Times has in its readers. While the “news” may seem objective — the paper can’t control what happens in the world, it just reports — the publication does choose which events to cover, which details to include, which lines to quote and how to contextualize information. Writers can even lie, and trends towards corporate monopolization give the reader fewer and fewer points of comparison (The New York Times Company doesn’t just own the Times). Is Corporate America really who we want newspapers to appease?

Of course, I write all of this in a column in a newspaper. In the end, newspapers are necessary and good, and I believe in them; I listen to NPR and I read The New York Times. My intention is not to make claims about or question the integrity of any publication — that is up to readers as individuals. Journalism plays a crucial role in any society; we should have the right to information about issues that inform decisions we make. This information is necessary especially in a society where we vote for our leaders. We must know what’s going on. However, a system legitimately dependent on profit and revenue, where making money is an absolute necessity, requires readers to be more critical. Everything deserves to be questioned.

Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be contacted at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter