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The news has never been free
The sheer technical ability to report may, in the not-so-distant future, be eclipsed by the financial ability to independently sustain one's own journalistic enterprise.
One of the best ways to fire up a print journalist is to suggest that their content ought to be taken out from behind a digital paywall. Whatever one might think of an individual reporter's politics, they tend to become vocal capitalists whenever someone suggests that they have a duty to give away their work for free.
■ And the journalists are right to be protective. There is no escaping the fact that it costs money and consumes resources to perform journalism. A reporter's time, airline tickets and mileage reimbursements, the power and water bills at the newsroom, raw newsprint, and all other kinds of factors accrue to the costs of doing business in a print institution. Even all-digital newsrooms and broadcast outlets need to spend money to do most of those same things (besides putting a dead-tree edition on the record).
■ For the longest time, the economics of newspaper publishing made the local newspaper tend towards a natural monopoly: Once the news had been gathered (the cost side), the expense of distribution to the next marginal customer was nearly free -- as long as their subscription or newsstand price covered the cost of printing the actual ink onto the actual paper. That's why the two-newspaper town is such a rarity.
■ Then along came the Internet and Craigslist and Google and the digitization of advertising. The market access that a newspaper once delivered to advertisers (wherein it could reach most of the literate consumers in an entire market area daily) disintegrated -- literally. Now, every market is in fragments, which are as easy to reach as setting up a targeted Facebook ad.
■ That's the pure economic-utility problem for newspaper and periodical journalism. Yet the need for such journalism remains as strong as ever. And that raises a cost that isn't as obvious as the costs that can be printed in an income statement: The opportunity cost of journalists' time. Any capable journalist has a set of highly-marketable skills: The ability to communicate and to learn quickly. Rare is the journalist in 2021 who doesn't have a college degree and an ability to use words in a way that would make most employers salivate. If you trust LinkedIn (another newspaper-killer), communication is the top skill a candidate can bring to the job market.
■ With the economics of journalism becoming harder and harder to satisfy and its jobs evaporating, the opportunity cost of being a journalist is going to become greater and greater. Some will stay out of a sense of duty or sheer joy for the job, but many others will leave (either voluntarily, with the nudge of buyouts, or involuntarily). And as that happens, some of those who depart the conventional boundaries of the profession will find unconventional ways back in.
■ Chicago's most famous media critic runs a blog "under an agreement" with a suburban newspaper. A longtime Iowa columnist publishes a website offering reprint rights to local papers. One of Nebraska's best newspaper columnists now edits a non-profit news service supplying free content to local outlets.
■ The nature of the market has rearranged how many of the old configurations worked in journalism. Many highly-skilled individuals still have the itch to report and to cover the news, even as they find gainful employment elsewhere. Their moonlighting -- as bloggers, freelancers, podcasters, and so on -- adds another wrinkle to the journalism economy: News consumers are better off having them around, of course, but it's hard to keep up a vocation (including journalism) where others can compete with your work while doing it as a hobby. And freelancing can be lucrative, too -- a former Chicago radio host now charges $10.95 per month for his podcast.
■ The news has never been free, and it never really will be. But the coming years may well show us that a considerable amount of the news "profession" will belong instead to people who can afford to treat it as a hobby or an alternative/non-conventional gig. That, in the long run, could dramatically alter not only what is covered, but how. The sheer technical ability to report may, in the not-so-distant future, be eclipsed by the financial ability to independently sustain one's own journalistic enterprise.