Pricey Democracy


Most journalists love a good argument, especially when it involves their own profession. Is the headline too big? Are the quotes fair? Do we order French roast or Ethiopian blend?

So it's not surprising that the debate over whether newspapers should charge for online content rambles on long after it has become clear that the real question is not "whether," but when? And how much?

As blueprints are drawn for online pay walls, and as newspapers implement steep price increases for their printed editions, there is a serious danger that high quality written news and analysis will become a luxury that many Americans simply can't afford. An unintended consequence of the pricing turmoil in the news business may be a nation of information haves and have-nots.

When I wrote about this problem in a national column last March, some editors were skeptical. They were unconvinced that papers would ever be able to put the genie back in the bottle and begin charging for Internet content – even as their own jobs were being threatened by a financial quagmire, caused in part by the decision in the early '90s to provide online material for free.

Now comes a report by the Knight Foundation on the related subject of the public's access to digital information. A key finding: "In a democracy, the very idea of second-class citizenship is unacceptable; yet, for many, second-class information citizenship is looming."

In its two-year study, the Knight panel found a paradox: while digital information is expanding nationally and globally, the volume and quality of local and regional information is shrinking. The study concludes that not all Americans and their local communities are being served equally in the digital world.

When the Knight data are layered against shifts in the newspaper industry, the situation becomes more clear but no less troubling. The vast majority of daily papers serve small and medium-sized communities. When they cut staff and pages the result is usually less local coverage. Although several notable attempts have been made to replace this lost information with local Internet news – such as the short-lived online version of Denver's defunct Rocky Mountain News – far more coverage is disappearing each year than is being replaced in the digital arena.

Remember, too, that even “free” Internet content comes at a significant price for the consumer. Before the pay walls go up at major news sites, as they surely will, the cost of owning a computer and connecting to the Internet is fairly substantial.

Almost every analysis of the plight facing newspapers and news magazines includes the prediction that some will disappear while the survivors will have to charge substantially higher prices for their product – both in print and online. Newsweek's latest business model, for example, envisions a sharply reduced circulation base of elite readers willing to pay a higher price per copy.

Where will that leave people without Internet access who simply won't be able to afford print editions? The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are already $2. Meanwhile, some 27 percent of American adults don't have access to the Internet, and about 12 percent are without either cable or satellite TV.

Those who scoff that many low-wage earners don't care to buy The Times or The Journal – or, for that matter, access the Internet – are missing the bigger point. The nation has already suffered a severe erosion of its middle class. One way to ensure that the lower classes stay put is to allow the gulf to widen between those with easy access to information and those for whom it is unaffordable.

And those who counter that “news” can be found for free in video and audio formats need only be reminded that cable and radio have been largely taken over by ranting purveyors of disinformation, while in many markets “your late local news” on broadcast TV consists of little more than car crashes and burning buildings. It’s free, but it’s hardly a replacement for well-reported news on important subjects.

In summing up its analysis of the information gap, the Knight study warns, "How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities."

Saving the newspaper industry will take some doing. Preserving the ability of all citizens to afford quality news will require even more.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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