News and Democracy Are Not Free

“Information wants to be free” is a mantra from the sixties that’s wreaking havoc with democracy. Our culture is at stake as digitization and the Internet largely eliminate the need for hard media.

Consumers have always mistakenly imputed value to the medium rather than to its contents and publishers have done little to disabuse them of that notion. If a hardcover book is $25, and a paperback $15, it follows that an ebook should be free since there’s nothing to make. Why should I pay for streaming when there’s no DVD, CD or newsprint involved? So as media disappears, digital content is left with little or no perceived value.

We love cheap stuff. We love free stuff even more. Who wouldn’t, until one considers the diminishing investment in art and information? Who’ll bring us the news? Who’ll uncover government malfeasance and self-serving? Who’ll hold us accountable for our human weaknesses?

Technical innovation has destroyed the need to print already circulating news on paper, truck it around and hawk it on street corners. Meanwhile, the profit motive has eroded the integrity of broadcast news media and converted it to partisan entertainment to sustain advertising revenue. Advertisers that supported the old print and broadcast news models found more cost-efficient customer targeting on the Web.

Cash-strapped news organizations faced the dilemma of whether to divest in news rooms and editors, or in the machinery of print production and broadcast. Some merged, while others ceased publication. A few traded profit for mission, depending on voluntary support from readers, foundations, and philanthropists. Still others started in the non-profit world. Pro Publica is one example. Another is The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which uncovered and released the Panama Papers and is now finding it hard to survive.

Here at home our principle nonprofit news sources are VT Public Radio, VTDigger, and The Commons. With the notable exception of Seven Days, many, if not most, of our for-profit print news organizations are struggling.

As newsgathering has been diluted; as delivery has migrated to the non-profit model, we must be clear about our responsibilities. The difference between non-profit and profit is definitional. Both need money to sustain everything they do for today’s journalism. Democracy is dependent on the free flow of ideas and a free and vigorous press corp. If we care about the future of our democracy, we all must lend our support by subscription or donation to responsible news media.

Information is not free and freedom isn’t either.

Bill Schubart lives, works and writes in Hinesburg.

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