Opinion: ‘It’s not the responsibility of the general public to feel obligated, or shamed into, supporting a privately owned, for-profit business’

Opinion: ‘It’s not the responsibility of the general public to feel obligated, or shamed into, supporting a privately owned, for-profit business’

ClarkCountyToday.com Editor Ken Vance offers his thoughts on the trend of news organizations ‘shaming’ readers into paying for their content

Over the years, when I describe a fellow journalist who I respect or admire, especially when speaking to another journalist, I often refer to them as being “from the same corner of the jungle as you and I.’’ You see, I think it takes a bit of a different kind of beast to be a journalist. In far too many ways to list here, we’re just not like you. In fact, we’re just not normal.

That said, I’ve been blessed to work as a journalist since April of 1987. There was a brief window where I had to go out and make a real living for 4-5 years, but for the most part, I have been a member of the Fourth Estate for most of the past 32 years. And, I’m very proud of that. I believe there is honor in being a journalist. I believe what we do has value. I like to help inform the public, share stories and information and even have a dialogue with members of the community. 

But, let’s face it. The biggest responsibility of journalists is to hold others accountable. It’s important we scrutinize elected and non-elected officials. I believe, from time to time, everyone needs to be scrutinized and viewed through a bit of a magnifying glass. What a wonderful world it would be if every one of us made the right decision and did the right thing all the time, but we know that’s just not the case, especially if we think no one is looking and we can get away with cutting a corner, or committing a transgression.

So, before I share my thoughts with you today, I want to make sure you realize I love my profession, I respect others in this profession and I believe each and every community would suffer greatly if there weren’t news organizations providing this absolutely necessary, and invaluable service.

There are many reasons why I and the rest of our staffers here love what we do, the fact that we do it here in Clark County and the fact that we get to do it for ClarkCountyToday.com. But, the one reason I’m going to share with you today is that since we launched our news website in September 2016, we have never asked you to pay for the news content we create and we have no intention of doing so in the future. We don’t require a subscription to read our content. We don’t restrict how you share it (we prefer attribution, which most of you understand and appreciate). We don’t ask for donations. All we ask is that if you feel our content is credible and worthy of your time and consideration, read it and keep coming back as long we make it worth your while.

Unfortunately, news organizations all over the country are folding at alarming rates. According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, more than 1,400 cities and towns across the U.S. have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years. I think there are many reasons for this. The landscape has changed dramatically since I first went to work at The Columbian Newspaper in 1987. When I started that job as a sportswriter, we didn’t have the modern internet, which wasn’t introduced publicly until the 1990s. There was no email. We didn’t have smartphones that now deliver, seemingly, any bit of desired information to our fingertips in seconds.

I strongly believe that newspapers, and news organizations in general, have greatly contributed to their own demise. It’s not my intention to get into a debate over how much of the responsibility for that demise deserves to be laid at the feet of my brethren. But, perhaps the first item on that (lengthy) list is that their rush to share their copyrighted content to the public via the internet for free back in the 1990s led to their current plight.

This premise was articulated, brilliantly I might add, to me in an email exchange I had with ClarkCountyToday.com reporter Paul Valencia this week.

“It is not the fault of the readers that those in power 20, 25 years ago decided to give away the main product for free on the internet,’’ Valencia wrote. “That’s two decades of allowing readers to read the news for free, and then getting mad at them when those in power changed their minds.

“Think about that for a minute,’’ Valencia wrote. “Let’s say there was a 15-year-old, starting to get involved in current events at school, and the teen started reading a local paper, online, for free. This person does this for 20, 25 years. Then, all of a sudden, at 35 or 40, this person is ripped on for not paying for the news. Who’s fault is that?

“For the subscriber-based media outlets, instead of shaming readers, they should be apologizing to readers for leading them astray all those years,’’ Valencia added. “They should be asking for forgiveness, and then try to explain that they would appreciate subscribers.’’

So, when a news organization asks you for a subscription, remember that organization is very likely not a nonprofit. It is a privately owned business, and as such, it’s designed to derive a profit for its owner or owner(s). So, as I stated earlier in this column, while I believe it does serve a worthy purpose to the community it serves, a news organization is a private business that should succeed or fail on its own merits. You are under absolutely no obligation to be shamed or pressured into supporting it. 

Some of those who come from “the same corner of the jungle’’ don’t agree with me. Craig Brown, news editor at The Columbian, addressed the topic in a recent column.

“It still amazes me that smart people think of journalism as some sort of public good, provided free for everyone to share,’’ Brown wrote. “I think it’s because good journalism serves the public interest, just like a public library or the fire department. People expect civic assets to be free. But, of course librarians and firefighters rely on taxpayers to pay their salaries. We rely on readers to pay ours. Without paying subscribers, our business will fail.’’

In his column, Brown instructed folks when sharing content from The Columbian “to share a few sentences of the story and then post the link. So, here’s the link:

https://www.columbian.com/news/2019/aug/10/from-the-newsroom-please-dont-copy-paste-this-column/

To be fair to Brown and the folks at The Columbian, which not only requires payment for their print product but also a subscription to the online content as well, they’re not alone. My other former employer in Clark County, The Reflector Newspaper, also asks members of the community to “invest in local journalism’’ by offering a donation, even though that newspaper still provides its content for free, both in print and online.

I wouldn’t want to live in one of those 1,400 communities that have lost newspapers in the last 15 years, especially one that is left with no reliable news organization at all. But, there has to be another solution. It’s not the responsibility of the general public to feel obligated, or shamed into, supporting a privately owned, for-profit business. You’re welcome to if you want, but I think there are better ways to keep the public informed and to hold public officials accountable and ClarkCountyToday.com is trying to do just that.

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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