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If we don’t start paying for news, society will suffer

It’s no secret that newspapers and media have grappled for years with figuring out how to turn a profit. The majority of news content is available for free online. And people have become so accustomed to visiting news sites that aggregate content sourced from local and national newspapers that they often forget its origins and assume news is a basic right and not a commodity. On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver poked holes in this attitude by reminding us about the importance of traditional newsrooms. He warned us that a society that lacks real journalism is also one that leaves itself open to corruption and greed that may never see the light of day.

The first point he made is one that really is easy to disregard given the prevalence of online news sites. The vast majority of blogs, and even TV news programs, pull bits and pieces from investigative journalism that has taken place in newsrooms like The New York Times or The Oregonian. These secondary sources may link to or make references to original pieces, and then provide their own spin on them, but local newspapers continue to be the real heart and soul of a community. Their journalists form relationships with sources. They spend hours at community meetings, and visit people’s homes 30 minutes away in the suburbs to spend an hour talking to them in order to get two quotes for a story.

And yet, these are the first workers to get laid off when a newspaper decides it is losing too much money and can no longer continue with its current business model.

Between 2004 and 2011, newspapers earned $2 billion and lost $30 billion in revenue, which led to major cutbacks in newsrooms, Oliver said. Between 2003 and 2014, America saw a 35 percent decline in its newspapers. Obviously, this is terrible news for the men and women who want to make a living reporting the news, and holding powerful elected officials, their donors, and pretty much anyone who can screw anyone else over, accountable. But it’s even worse for the rest of society.

“Not having reporters at government meetings is like a teaching leaving seventh grade students to supervise themselves,” Oliver said. “Best case scenario: Britney gets gum in her hair. Worst case scenario: You no longer have a school.”

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Desperate to find a business model that works, many newspapers have put crazy demands on journalists. They’ve turned to a digital model that requires their writers post several pieces a day — one needs to remember, it can often take days or weeks to gain the trust of a source who is actually willing to give you newsworthy information, which means there’s a good chance one or two of those daily posts will consist of fluff. Journalists are also being asked to shoot and edit their own video (which is a skill in and of itself) and spend hours a day on social media. Basically, the responsibility to make a newspaper profitable has been placed on the journalist, which is a risky proposition if you keep in mind that many writers are the same people who both failed ninth grade algebra and have nothing but contempt for big business.

The other popular solution, Oliver said, that many papers have accepted is the one where they allow a wealthy investor to buy their publication in the hopes that he or she will allow it to run the same way. It isn’t that this option never works, it’s that when it fails, it fails in spectacular fashion. When the Las Vegas Review-Journal was secretly sold to billionaire Sheldon Adelson, it became apparent this was going to be a nightmare conflict of interest. Prior to Adelson owning the paper, its journalists frequently wrote about the businessman — and he even sued one of them for libel.

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There are still many people producing great work at newspapers, but, as Oliver says, “They’re doing it despite their current conditions.” And the onus isn’t on them — it’s on us now.

Many news sites now require that readers subscribe and pay a small fee for the privilege of accessing their content. The price for reliable news is relatively paltry, but knowing you are getting that news from journalists who have been given the time and space to forge connections that matter, and who have the freedom to report on topics without outside bias and influence from a wealthy source is the priceless ultimate goal. Paying for content isn’t something you do for journalists, or even for a newspaper. We do it to keep the feet of those who can abuse their power held to the fire.

Oliver said it best: “Sooner or later, we’re either going to have to pay for journalism or we’re going to pay for it.” And the cost is prohibitive: A less honest and transparent society.

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