A different prescription for supporting a ‘principled press’

Forrest Berkshire

It was heartening to see such a high-profile celebrity as Meryl Streep advocate for supporting fact-based journalism. But her specific recommendation missed the mark.

Streep delivered a six-minute speech criticizing President-elect Donald Trump while she was accepting a lifetime achievement award at last Sunday’s Golden Globes. As part of that criticism, she called on her audience to support a “principled press to hold power to account” and to support the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Because we’re going to need them going forward. And they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”

CPJ is an important organization doing good work. Based in New York, it monitors violations of press freedom around the globe, reporting on such instances and taking action to document and mobilize against repressive regimes. In 2016, it documented 48 journalists who were killed in situations where their work could be confirmed as the motive for their deaths. I would urge readers to visit the committee’s website at cpj.org and learn more about the state of press freedom around the world.

But if the American public wants to safeguard a free and independent press in our country, there is a better option: Subscribe to a newspaper. Online works if that is your only option, but the dead-tree, recycled rag that leaves your fingers stained black is the best option.

Why?

Several reasons. For one, because you’ll be better informed. Most Americans report getting their news through social media. But social media has become an echo chamber fueled by links shared by like-minded friends and computer algorithms that show users what they predict will generate clicks.

Studies have also shown that readers are more likely to read news they might not have clicked on when they happen across a headline while browsing a print publication.

But there is also a broader, economic reason to subscribe to a newspaper if you value independent, fact-based journalism. They are the foundation of our news ecosystem.

Every publication that exists both online and in print derives the vast majority of its revenue from the physical product, often 90 to 95 percent. And that money comes primarily from two sources, advertising and sales through subscriptions or single copies. There was a time not long ago when advertising alone accounted for up to three-quarters, but with the proliferation of cheap digital advertising diverting much of that life’s blood away from print, many publications are trying to move close to a 50-50 split. That’s why subscription and single copy prices keep rising.

Reporting done right is time-intensive work, which means it is expensive. We call it newsgathering because that’s what a journalist does — he or she goes out and gathers facts from a multitude of sources and then distills what can be verified into a report for the general public.

In most areas, newspapers have the largest newsrooms. That’s why most news reports originate with them. In 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, only two-in-ten U.S. adults got their news from print newspapers. That was half the number who got theirs online, and 57 percent of U.S. adults often got their news from TV. But those numbers only show how citizens consumed the news, not where it originated.

A 2010 Pew study that looked at the “news ecosystem” and traced the origination of six key storylines found that more than half originated from newspaper reporting. Much of the other media outlets such as local TV, niche media, radio and online outlets simply repackaged already published facts that originated at those newspapers.

Which brings me full-circle to Streep’s recommendation for strengthening journalism.

Newspapers derive much of their independence from their financial stability, which entails consumers paying for a product based on fact-based reporting on issues that affect the public. It is about more than chasing clicks online and churning out content aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Many newspapers in this country are in serious jeopardy, largely because of the broken economic model upon which the industry was built for more than a century. But those threats have been compounded by a dwindling subscriber base because too many people have disengaged or lost interest in news that affects public policy. Or, they just don’t want to have to pay for it.

An informed public through responsible journalism is vital to our form of government. Newspapers are the foundation of that model. If they go away, most journalism will, as well.

So if you agree with Streep — not with her politics, but with her sentiment that journalism is important to an informed electorate — then subscribe to a newspaper. Because without them, the sources for the news you are getting elsewhere will go dry.

This column was originally published in the Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, print edition of The Kentucky Standard.