Friday, May 28, 2010

a call for businesses to boycott the Bloomington Herald-Times

Tonight will mark the last commencement ceremony for Aurora Alternative High School, whose doors will shut at the end of this school year after 15 years of serving the Bloomington, IN, community.

The Bloomington Herald-Times ran a nice short article about Aurora this morning, which I'm posting in a separate post. I'm posting it here instead of directing you to the article because the Herald-Times has stuck its online content behind a paywall, a decision I oppose deeply. The paywall seems even more wrongheaded and socially irresponsible during times of community crisis, as in, for example, when an economic recession paired with terribly short-sighted and heinously pro-rich tax laws force local school boards to make excruciating decisions about which programs to cut.

The publisher of the Herald-Times, Mayer Maloney, has stood firmly behind the paywall decision from its inception, arguing that it guarantees advertisers' access to local readers who, because they live in the community, are far more likely to purchase the goods and services being advertised.

Let's analyze this stance. First, the paywall is not an effort to recruit local readers; it's an effort to keep non-local readers out. Which means that what happens in Bloomington stays in Bloomington, since the vast majority of readers live or work in the region.

Second, the economic value of a local newspaper is directly related to its community value, and community value is directly related to the newspaper's penetration into the community it serves. As I've mentioned before, the Herald-Times is pretty much the only game in town, which perhaps explains why Maloney feels justified in prioritizing the paper's value to advertisers over its value to community members. But eventually, I believe this approach will fail the Herald-Times. It's inevitable that one of the following will happen: Another news outlet will provide good (or good enough) local reporting that will be made freely available to all community members; or, in the absence of another quality news source, a community whose primary news source is sequestered behind a paywall will be a community to whom local news matters less and less. Maloney has said that subscription rates have been steady since the inception of the paywall, and this may be so; but it won't be so forever.

And even if business remains good at the Herald-Times, this doesn't justify the social irresponsibility of making news available only to those who are willing to pay. Especially during times of crisis--and let's not mistake this time for anything less than crisis--access to local news is essential for an engaged, politically active community.

If the Herald-Times refuses to stand down from its short-sighted position on news paywalls, then I call for local businesses to boycott the paper for the good of the community these businesses serve. If the Herald-Times will not heed the needs of its community members, then perhaps it will listen to the groups whose interests do seem to matter.


Ender said...

I won't support the boycott. HT is a business: they sell their product. It's hard to produce local news for free in an online revenue system that relies on clicks. The money will go to the sexy scandalous stories, and the people who write them.
It's the 'American Idolism' of news - the winner is usually the guy who is cutest and sexiest, while the truly talented performers are pushed out. In this instance, reporters who do news (investigative journalism, etc.) will be pushed out of business in favor of those who write about Justin Bieber's hairdo.. Then there will be no one to do the realy work of local news.
Your call for a boycott, if successful, will have the opposite effect of what you say you intend. I hope it is unsuccessful.
HT's move is a wise one; I see it as a tactic in defense of the institution of real reporting.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Thanks for your comment.

I agree that the HT is a business like any other; and, like any other business, we hope and even expect the business to work in the best interests of the community it represents. It's why we expect BP to temper its oil drilling efforts with environmental concerns and even compensation for communities that have been damaged by the recent spill, even though we recognize that BP's first interest is making money through drilling. It's why we're never okay with organizations that prioritize making money over acting ethically.

I'm a former newspaper reporter; I left journalism when my paper folded because of lack of ad revenue. Our competitor was another local paper whose sensationalist approach to reportage won them the eyeballs (and advertisers) they needed. So I'm sympathetic to your concern over sensationalism-for-readers.

But as the publisher himself has pointed out, reader subscriptions account for a pittance of the Herald-Times' income; and I'm not sure how making the paper available to more readers will lead to the 'Bieber effect.' Can you clarify how you think this may happen if the HT drops the paywall?

Ender said...

It's not for me to clarify - just look at the trend.
This issue is not limited to what happens at the Herald Times. In terms of the internet's effect upon modern culture, we're in the long phase of a paradigm shift, and this affects all facets of modern culture. What we call news has been trending towards putting a premium on what wins eyeballs, to the detriment of more culturally (or socially) egalitarian (or responsible) reportage.
That's the trend, and it spells a type of devastation for the newspaper industry.
HT, in recognition of this, has put up a paywall. The NYT and other newspaper organizations are poised to follow. By their calculation, if they do nothing, their business will fail.
If consumers respond by boycotting newspapers that insist on consumers paying for their news, those newspapers will fail.
Maybe the newspaper industry needs to crash and burn, so that the new paradigm, whatever it turns out to be, can form itself from the rubble and ashes.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Okay, so how do you see a paywall preventing this trend, since it started long before information was available for free online? I mean, aren't we talking about the thread of "yellow journalism" that has existed as a category of reportage for well over a century? I'm not sure how putting up paywalls will somehow stop something that existed long before the word "paywall" was even a glimmer on a publisher's eye.

Ender said...

I don't know that the trend can be halted. We may have reached critical mass, and anything we try would be doomed to fail. Maybe HT's paywall action turns out to be ineffectual and the newspaper fails anyway. Even so, I don't see anything sinister or irresponsible in this action, certainly nothing worthy of the punitive retaliation of a consumer boycott.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I think the degree to which a person sees paywalls as irresponsible is directly related to the degree to which a person sees access to information as a sort of inalienable right. I believe not only that we all have a right to informed citizenship, but also that an informed citizenry is fundamental to democracy. The amount the HT charges for access to its content is a pittance, but it's enough to keep lots of people out. It's also enough to prevent citizen journalists--bloggers, twitterers, and other intelligent filters--from linking to the content that lives on the other side of that paywall.

I have a right to expect to live alongside an informed citizenry, and anything that limits this is socially irresponsible, is opposed to democracy, is a hobble that slows our race toward a better future.

Ender said...

I don't buy the idea of access to information (specifically, news) being an inalienable right. That's not a safe premise at all. And I can't accept the validity of the argument that you have a right to freely consume a product or service which another party incurs a cost to provide.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I think it's an unfortunate but common misconception that people who talk about "free access to information" believe information should be made available free of charge. I'm talking free as in free speech, not as in free beer. But paywalls, because they happen to present barriers to both kinds of freeness, are doubly reprehensible business practices, in my view. Free beer is not a right, but free speech is--and so is, in my view, free (as in speech) access to information that supports informed citizenship.

Ender said...

But it seems like you're equivocating.
What do you mean by 'free'? Reporting the news is free speech (in the sense that it's legally protected), but 'free speech' is not necessarily news. 'Free' doesn't mean the same in those two clauses.
'Free' has a third meaning if you're talking about the free consumption of news.
They're not the same.
This is why I'm not getting the link you're trying to make between 'free speech' and paywalls. You're trying to have your cake and eat it too.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I'm talking about free access to tools for citizenship, not free speech. They're linked but not identical rights. And I'm not sure what third meaning of 'free' you're pointing to. As I've pointed out in my comments above, paywalls violate free (as in, but not identical to, free speech) access to citizenship tools because they limit access to free (as in, but not identical to, free beer) information.

Really, what cake do you think I'm trying to simultaneously have and eat?


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