Paying for good journalism

There is no such thing as a free lunch. And there is no such thing as free journalism. And there is definitely no such thing as free good journalism. Yet I consume a lot of free good journalism. Good journalism is a public good. However, to get access to good journalism, as for most things that are good in this world, someone should pay. This also means that I am not convinced that we can approach journalism as something people will be willing to pay for when/if it becomes cheaper.

I consume journalism from various outlets, including (but definitely not limited to) The Economist, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Financial Times, The Guardian, and the Danish Weekendavisen, without (at least directly) paying anything. I have at multiple occasions considered subscribing to one of more of these outlets but I did not find it worth the money. Not because I do not find any of the prices reasonable. The main issue is that each outlet only provides a small proportion of the content I care about. For that reason, I agree 100% with this tweet arguing that the system is broken: “Starting mid-june I began tracking each Twitter link that I follow which ends up at a source that blocks adblockers & demands a subscription to view content. I calculated the monthly cost of each of those sources, if I subscribed to all to see their content. I’m only 15 days into the experiment and the cost so far is $182.47/month. In other words, paying for the journalistic content I value, in the current market system, is a $2,189/year expense. That’s an awful lot. I could pitch in a buck per article and come out ahead.”

The issue is that good journalism is a public good made up by several (semi-)private organisations and I do not have one entry point to get access to everything I need (or at least the content that I would like to pay for). I tried out Blendle back in 2016 and bought several articles but I never used it beyond that. Maybe I found it difficult to navigate the platform, maybe I simply didn’t integrate it into my news consumption habits.

There has been a lot of talk about the need for a ‘Netflix for journalism’. I disagree with this idea for at least two reasons. First, while it is not always easy to distinguish between the two, journalism is not entertainment like TV shows and movies. As Robert Putnam describes it in Bowling Alone: “Although modern media offer both information and entertainment, they increasingly blur the line between the two — it is important from the point of view of civic engagement to treat the two somewhat separately.” In other words, there are often strong analytical reasons to not simply look at journalism as something that should (or could) work as ‘Netflix for journalism’. If ‘Netflix for journalism’ actually worked, I would be concerned about whether it actually was journalism.

Second, I am not even convinced that the ‘Netflix for entertainment’ model is working. This model was more appealing five years ago when Netflix was one of the few players on the streaming market. Today, you have Disney+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms. Maybe Netflix is moving closer to ‘New York Times for entertainment’ than media outlets are moving closer to ‘Netflix for journalism’?

The most recent trend has, if anything, been further away from a ‘Netflix for journalism’ model and more towards following (and paying) individual journalists. Substack is the best example of such a model and there are good reasons not to see that as a good model for most journalism.

Of course, there has already been conducted a lot of research on why people want to pay for news. Fletcher and Nielsen (2017), for example, examine people’s willingness to pay for online news and find that people who are already paying for offline news and younger people are more willing to pay for online news (see also Goyanes 2015). This is not surprising.

However, there are questions in this domain I would like some researchers devote more time to. Here is one hypothesis: People will be more willing to pay for expensive journalism. In other words, as journalism becomes cheaper, we might not see the willingness to pay increase but rather decrease. It’s simply a race to the bottom.

If this hypothesis is correct, then journalism is a Veblen good. That is, demand for journalism increases as the price increases (or, in economic terms, the demand curve for journalism can slope upwards). This is partially because the price reflect the quality of a product (see also Coelho and McClure 1993). There are several examples from the medical literature that expensive placebos work better. In one study, by Waber et al. (2008), respondents in an experiment reported that a painkiller with a cost of $2.50 a dose worked much better than a painkiller with a cost of 10c, despite both of them being placebos. Might similar mechanisms be at play when people consume journalism?

One relatively easy way to test this would be to build a “news portal” in an experiment (similar to to approach in Bryanov et al. 2020) and explore how the price of journalism affects decision-making. When are people more likely to pay for expensive news? What citizens are more likely to opt for cheap alternatives? What role does clickbait headlines play? Will paywalls lead some people to be more inclined to opt for sources with a greater amount of mis- or/and disinformation?

It is a well-known point that a lot of bad journalism is free: “the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!”. However, as I stated above, most of the good journalism I consume is free as well. Accordingly, I am not convinced that the solution to bad journalism is to make good journalism cheaper or more easily available.