The facts, not the spin, about paying for the news – Helen Martin

Media organisations need a source of income to employ journalists to report the news, writes Helen Martin.

Monday, 19th August 2019, 6:00 am
Journalism you can trust costs money

ONE of the pages I am most attracted to in our paper is the readers’ letters page and online responses. Sometimes they inspire me to “columnise” a topic, whether it’s agreeing or disagreeing with them, or being motivated to explain something if I can.

Last week a member of Gorgie/Dalry Community Council contributed a letter stating: “A large number of newspapers [online] can only be accessed by subscription, which means members of the public are now denied access to publications which previously could be read free of charge.”

I can only assume this is a young man, perhaps trying to do the best for the public. He also asked for “the facts” and not “the spin”.

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So my pal, here we go. Before the internet existed, the hard copy daily, evening and Sunday newspapers, not to mention most local weeklies, came with a price tag from a newsagent. Once families bought two or three papers a day! The bulk of income came from advertising.

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When the internet was successfully set up, newspaper owners thought putting the content online for nothing would bring all their advertisers along with it, plus build up online readership and reputation.

As we know now, advertisers didn’t follow that easily – or at all. They could set up their own website or use others based on their sector, be it cars, restaurants, holidays, trades, or anything else, sometimes at no cost at all. Advertising revenue plummeted, hence newspaper income sank.

It was a strange and complex problem. The product people had bought and paid for was the content, the news and the journalism. But, by owners at the time, that was valued much lower (and given out for nothing) than advertising which made most of their profits.

Unfortunately, what always cost owners more than anything else was paying journalists (dozens or hundreds in evening or daily papers) and of course, printing the hundreds of thousands of each title. Here’s a little example. In the early 90s the Evening News had five daily editions!

The way the world’s technology changed affected many industries, especially newspapers.

Most newspaper-owned printing plants have disappeared now. Large offices which employed a thousand staff (editorial, advertising sales, designers and production teams, IT, finance, circulation executives, sales planners and delivery drivers, competition teams, security etc etc) have now moved to smaller bases with minimum staff who are talented, hard-working and dependent on modern technology to produce the goods.

Advertising is still in existence but no longer the massive income it once was. Newspaper sales are now more important financially than they were before, with printing outsourced at a high cost.

But as our letter writer conveyed, people have become used to reading content for free online. He’s right. Increasingly newspapers are ­introducing subscriptions for full access to online content – which is mostly provided by qualified journalists rather than digital citizens. They have to.

Without increasing revenue with subscriptions or any other means, how can owners have the dosh to employ professional journalists to deliver legally authenticated news, specialities in politics, investigation, crime, education, council matters, sport, entertainment and anything else?

As a society we need journalism and newspapers but they are commercial operations, not funded in any other way than by making a profit.

These are the facts, not the spin.