Other Voices: It's up to we, the people, to save the function of local journalism

Small and regional newspapers are being shuttered, merged with larger papers or acquired by non-news entities seemingly interested in eking out a last bit of profit. Journalism across the country, especially local journalism, is struggling in its role: to provide citizens actionable information so they can make the best possible choices in their lives and in their local government.

Many of the problems faced by journalism are related to the shift to an online world. While many of us (myself included) prefer reading a physical paper, we must recognize that it is not the future. There are benefits to online news: It is much more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities; distribution is cheap and instantaneous; and for the reporter, instead of a daily deadline, a story develops at its natural pace and is published when it’s ready.

In the past, when all subscribers had physical newspapers delivered to their door, the economies of scale kept the subscription costs modest. Now, with many people reading news online, the price of a physical newspaper has gone up substantially to match the expense of printing and delivering the newspaper.

The online shift brings other challenges, especially given that advertising is a major source of revenue for a paper. Data for online advertising is showing that readers aren’t interested in being shown advertisements while consuming news. This is seen in the fact that newspaper revenues from online advertising are low and continue to fall. In addition, many readers are accustomed to seeking out “free” news articles, not contributing to any subscription revenue.

If newspapers continue to remain dependent on advertising, they are dependent on readers who like to click on ads and buy things. No matter how principled the journalists in the newsroom, over time a news organization will slowly be forced (by its bottom line) to favor the click-bait, emotion-driven headlines that make many of us cringe.

So where does this leave us? The old adage “you get what you pay for” seems appropriate. Newspapers are businesses that create value. It is hard to quantify and capture that value. And even when it can be quantified – say, an investigative report that saves a government millions of dollars – the journalists are not the direct recipient of that value. One example of such exemplary journalism is the 2008 report “Losing Track: North Carolina’s Crippled Probation System” in Raleigh’s The News & Observer. The piece cost $216,000 to produce and is estimated to have prevented eight murders by probationers and saved the state more than $62 million (source: “Democracy’s Detectives” by James T. Hamilton).

It is up to all citizens to understand the civic and personal value of news organizations. We all need to step up and pay for subscriptions, and news organizations need to price those subscriptions to cover the actual cost of producing the news. Some organizations are already moving in this direction, going completely ad-free or having ad-free subscriptions. It is important that incentives are driven by paying customers who demand solid journalism, not by unknown wealthy backers and advertisers.

I personally have stepped up in the last year and starting paying full-price subscriptions for a local, a regional, a national and an international newspaper. I challenge each person who reads this to find a news source you respect for its journalistic integrity and take a moment to set up a subscription – online or physical media.

No matter what the future of journalism will look like, it only functions if it is truly supported by we, the people.

Chris Roat is a Los Altos resident.

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