You Get the News You Pay For

Originally posted: October 13, 2011

It is no secret that journalism is facing a crisis. Daily newspapers, TV stations and magazines have been slashing staff after being savaged by the worse advertising downturn since the Great Depression.

However, one news outfit is expanding — AOL Patch. In the past year, AOL reportedly has dumped more than $100 million into expanding its hyperlocal news site. But not all of its upgrades have been costly: The online news service announced this month that it had recruited 8,000 unpaid bloggers and that it plans to add another 8,000 this fall.

AOL’s success in recruiting so many people to do unpaid work is more a comment on the sorry state of the U.S. economy than it is on how enviable it is to work for AOL. With so much time on their hands and no jobs to be had, unemployed workers are turning to blogging.

Paid media writing, reporting and editing jobs are scarce. About 30 percent of the nation’s journalists have lost their jobs since 2000, casualties of newsroom budgets that have been slashed as advertising — the lifeblood of a newspaper company — has dried up.

The recession played a big role in media companies’ troubles. Media executives also share some blame; they were too complacent about their monopoly status. But the Internet, with its abundance of bloggers, free websites and pundits, has been the true game-changer, upending the economic model that supported the Fourth Estate.

So why should you care that newspapers are struggling? Because our nation is built on the premise that an engaged, informed public is best equipped to chart its own course.

As the traditional model for journalism has been challenged, so, too, have standards. At a newspaper, content is checked for factual accuracy, grammar and spelling. Reporters actually report, talking to sources, crosschecking information with other sources, sifting through loads of chaff to find the kernels of truth. And when reporters file their stories, layers of editors further refine each passage, from fact-checking names at the most basic level to raising higher-level questions of fairness, ethics and completeness. The result is a product that has been vetted. It is not a perfect process. Humans make mistakes. But credible news organizations have policies to correct those mistakes.

News gathering and editing are not cheap. It costs very little, on the other hand, to flip open a smartphone, capture a street demonstration and post it on the Web. Or, for that matter, to opine about what you read in your daily newspaper.

But does the report offer context helping you understand what just happened? Has this blogger or citizen journalist double-checked his or her information? Or is he or she merely posting selective items to help further a particular agenda?

Backers will argue that adding voices to the public debate means that democracy is better served. But what has emerged is a cacophony of spin, hype and bluster. Facts are routinely mangled. The free, fast-moving nature of the Internet seems to foster bad behavior among Web posters and newsmakers who understand how the game is played. They exploit the Internet’s flaws to their advantage.

Rep. Michele Bachmann is a case in point. The contender for next year’s GOP nomination for president knew what she was doing when she said that President Barack Obama “literally stole half a trillion dollars out of Medicare to put it in Obamacare.” It didn’t seem to matter that it wasn’t true. The Minnesota Republican scored points as the statement was spun in blogs, on Twitter and Facebook. For the dis-informed, Obama was now a Medicare robber.

We have access to more information than ever, but less of it seems to be true. The lack of serious journalism and the rise of Internet misinformation is depriving us of what we should treasure most — impartial, factual information provided to citizens who make decisions.

The next time you hear about bloggers working for free at AOL or the Huffington Post, remember: You get what you pay for.

Mark Tatge is Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.  He is a veteran investigative editor and reporter whose long career in journalism includes stints as Midwest bureau chief for Forbes magazine, as an investigative reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s statehouse bureau, and positions with the Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News and Denver Post.

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