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Column: We’re counting on you to support what you value

A free press is expensive

  • Maggie Cassidy. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Editor
Friday, May 03, 2019

Several years ago, I made the mistake of diving into the comments section of a post on The New Yorker’s Facebook page. People were upset that the magazine was posting links on social media to articles behind a paywall. In other words, users needed to pay to read.

“Content doesn’t grow on trees,” I wrote.

Boy, did that light people up.

You just don’t get it, they told me. Traditional media needs to get with the times. The internet is free. Facebook is free. Content should be free. The New Yorker shouldn’t post links to stories behind a paywall — or even have a paywall at all.

“Sorry if that ruffles your precious little feathers,” one of them told me. “They’re just regular old feathers,” I replied, and logged off for the day.

This back-and-forth was at the top of my mind recently when a similar insurrection erupted on the Valley News’ Facebook page. As with so many other things — the Great Recession, broadband internet, Five Guys — this phenomenon arrived in the Upper Valley a few years late.

A sampling of the comments:

“Why do you post an article for all of us to read then not actually make it accessible for us to read?”

“I registered and now (it) says it wants me to pay. Um no thanks.”

“Don’t post and share them if we can’t see them. Please don’t make us buy a subscription just to see a few articles you post on a free social media site.”

A quick point of order: Valley News print and digital subscribers have access to everything on our website, but even non-subscribers can read at least four articles online every month if they register a free account.

If you want to continue reading after that, we figure you are finding value in our work. And in exchange for that value, we’re asking for some sort of subscription level to support it, because producing that work is expensive.

What are the expenses? After all, many are quick to point out that our digital presence is not tied to our spending on newsprint, ink or delivery.

That’s true. But many people don’t realize how expensive it is to host a website of our size and complexity. With an average of more than 1.4 million hits and almost a quarter-million readers every month, few sites in the Upper Valley are larger or more regularly updated than ours. To do that, we contract with several third-party vendors who help us operate the news, calendar, classified, advertising and subscription functions of the Valley News website. The digital arm of our parent company, Newspapers of New England, is powered by several employees whose jobs didn’t exist when I started here seven years ago.

Then, of course, there’s the cost of journalism, which doesn’t disappear when we publish online. That includes our expensive subscriptions to news wires like The Associated Press. And not least of all, it includes my colleagues and me: the journalists working out of our West Lebanon newsroom.

As another editor recently put it, the aphorism “you get what you pay for” was not repealed by the internet.

Whether you’re holding our newspaper in your hands or reading one of our articles on your phone, it took time, energy and skills to work those articles into existence. We can’t merely Google information; we work hard to report the articles that are going to get Googled. We recognize matters of interest, work the phones, hit the streets, question officials, write, photograph, edit and design, telling stories of your neighbors and knitting together the Upper Valley at large. And with the web, we’re doing all of that at a much more rapid pace than ever before. (That’s value added for our digital readers, who get to read breaking news that is of intense interest as we report it.)

We strive for accuracy, and when we make a mistake, we fix it. You know (or can easily find) what it means when it says something was published by the Valley News, including who we are, where we’re located, how to contact us. You know how we’re funded — by our advertisers and our subscribers. How often can you say the same for what you read online? And what does it mean in the cases when you don’t know those answers?

“Advertising!” some say. “Get rid of the paywall and support your website with online advertising. Innovate or die.”

There’s much to unpack there, including the negative impact the digital revolution has had on our traditional advertising base of local retailers, and the impacts that “innovative” business models can have on journalistic principles. But the bottom line is that if you know of a newspaper of a similar size and market to the Valley News that has successfully transitioned to supporting its newsroom through digital advertising revenue, please let me know. We’re working on cracking the code just like everybody else, and I’d like to learn from that newspaper’s successes.

Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, which tracks such things, recently surveyed 35,000 American adults and found that 71% believe “their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially.” That reflects a fantastic disconnect from the torrent of industry news detailing layoffs, cutbacks and indeed the gutting of local newspapers due to financial strains. Meanwhile, Nieman reporter Laura Hazard Owen wrote, “only 14% (of people surveyed) have paid for or given money to local news of any kind — print, digital, public radio pledge drive, anything — in the past year.”

Content doesn’t grow on trees, even when those trees are digital. And if we’re not willing to pay for what we value, we could one day find news deserts where forests once stood.

 

Maggie Cassidy is the editor of the Valley News. She can be reached at 603-727-3220 or mcassidy@vnews.com.