At the beginning of September, the Palladium-Item newspaper in Richmond implemented what many other newspapers have in recent years, a "paywall" that requires users to have a paid subscription when viewing more than a certain number of articles per month on the paper's website. The paper launched some new features with their digital subscription, including a tablet version and new mobile versions.
I think this approach is a great thing, and is probably something they should have done a long time ago. Here's why.
I took the photo associated with this post at a recent meeting of Richmond Common Council, and the guy in the white shirt sitting in the front row is Palladium-Item reporter Bill Engle. He's feverishly writing down notes about what Council members and their guests are saying and discussing, as he does at every Council meeting before rushing back to his office computer to file a story before his deadline for the next day's edition.
Bill is one of a small but hearty group of reporters at the Pal-Item who pretty much arrange their lives around the events in this community that need to be reported on. Events that happen on evenings and weekends and at times not always convenient to the deadlines that go with printing a newspaper. Events that they attend after spending a good part of their day trying to get sources and spokespeople to call them back for interviews or fact-checks, and not always about topics that are cheery or even all that interesting.
They, along with their editors and other staff, do this day in and day out, constantly working to fill the pages (printed and online) that our information-hungry, instant gratification culture demands to see always refreshed with new details and new perspectives.
It's hard to believe they've been "giving away" the fruits of that labor for this long.
There are those who take issue with the way a certain story is presented or what stories are left out (I've certainly been an outspoken critic of some of the paper's reporting at times), but I've seen a number of people react to the new paywall by referring to those kinds of criticisms and then expressing indignation about having to pay money for the services that the Palladium-Item offers to this community. "The online newspaper should be free!" they've said. "Why should I pay for news when I can get it somewhere else?" they ask. And when the paper doesn't cover a particular story in just the right way or when they read an editorial they disagree with, they say the whole operation is just garbage.
I think there's a pretty big difference between criticizing the content of the paper, and suggesting that the reporting and publishing services that the paper provides have no tangible value.
Even with all of the business model problems in the newspaper industry, the day that Richmond loses its last regularly published newspaper will be a day that signals a kind of decline and economic malaise that I don't think we want to have on our hands, not to mention the dangers of government unchecked by the accountability that media coverage can bring.
And even with the local radio stations that do some of their own news-gathering and even with bloggers, Facebook and Twitter, Richmond does not have anything near the critical mass of alternative media sources to produce the consistent, journalistically sound reporting that keeps a community informed. I've learned firsthand that serious journalism is not someone's side project. An informed citizenry does not come from perusing sound bites on Facebook walls.
As my own relationship with the Palladium-Item has evolved over the years (see the "related posts" below), from dismissive critic to cautious observer and now to being a member of their volunteer editorial board where I see a little more of how the sausage is made, I can say that one thing has remained consistent throughout that time: the people at the paper have always been open to hearing and acting on rational critiques of how they can improve. Despite whatever narratives we might perpetuate about financial motives or corporate overseers, the Pal-Item is still produced by a group of real human beings who live and work in our community, who feel good when our community is thriving, who feel disappointment when we stumble, and who are personally and professionally invested in doing the right thing. When they mess up in putting out a paper, they feel the sting. When they get a fact wrong or miss an important story, it's a big deal. And when someone offers constructive ideas for how they can improve, they take those to heart.
Just as I wouldn't seek out a free brain surgeon or a free auto mechanic, I don't want my news to come from a rag-tag amalgamation of volunteers who may or may not know what the "two sources rule" is, who may or may not have a personal or political agenda to push, who may or may not have time to attend every single important government meeting. I'm willing to pay for professional journalists to provide what I see as an essential service.
Yes, there are significant ways the Palladium-Item can improve. But have you given them your feedback directly to see what they say? Have you sent them your story ideas? Have you written a letter to the editor that counters some of the problematic or just outright crazy stuff that gets published on a regular basis? Have you tried attending Common Council meetings a few times in a row?
And if we're not willing to pay what amounts to less than a dollar per day to support the paper's very existence, how can we expect them to have the resources to make those improvements, let alone put out any news stories at all?