Last week I promised to continue the conversation about reversing the sad decline of local news and its detrimental effect on democracy as measured by informed citizen participation.
In recent years I’ve become a devotee of digital media, such as state-level websites like Maryland Matters and Maryland Reporter. They allow me to get my daily fix of Annapolis politics. The former offers original articles written by experienced staff journalists, while the latter typically has one staff-written article and an aggregation of stories from print publications throughout Maryland.
Both of these nonprofit electronic publications are funded primarily by foundations keenly interested and invested in the need for professional coverage of local and state government. They also fundraise through periodic appeals. Subscriptions cost nothing.
To put my money where my convictions are, I happily donate to one of the publications noted above. I remain somewhat bemused to observe how journalists-turned editors-turned business-owners unabashedly seek donations from readers, understanding, I believe, that donors cannot be allowed to influence the news product.
Closer to home, the Chestertown Spy and Talbot Spy, another nonprofit digital medium, has a business model that differs from Maryland Matters and Maryland Reporter. It carries local sponsorship advertising. It too offers free subscriptions. Last year, its ninth in existence, the Spy conducted a successful fundraising appeal.
Though I don’t pretend to be able to justify the feasibility of one business model over another, the common thread seems to be an infusion of privately-raised money. This similarity seems rooted in a commitment by donors—comprising wealthy owners, foundations, individuals and joint-venture entrepreneurs—to sustainment of information-gathering vehicles that preserve a democracy dependent on public accountability and oversight.
Traditional newspapers and magazines continue to rely on paid advertising and subscriptions.
I further suggest that communities on the brink of losing a valuable local newspaper coalesce to raise money to ensure the future of a community asset. While I realize that every community, large and small, has pressing social needs, I believe that the local newspaper provides an invaluable service to residents; it’s a bulwark against the diminution of democracy.
Like a local utility, a newspaper or website fuels and sustains the health of a community. Residents have a vessel into which they can pour their concerns and opinions.
To take the analogy to a local utility one step further, I would go so far to say that local journalism produces a form of “renewable energy” on the part of its readers. The democratic process works best when citizens become engaged in local matters based upon what they read and hear.
In an opinion piece written recently by Megan McArdle in The Washington Post, she wrote,” Journalism isn’t going away, exactly. There are business models that work, largely two: funding by donors or wealthy owners willing to operate at a loss, or subscriptions. But those models can’t support all the journalism now being done.
“The number of donors doesn’t magically increase just because more are needed. And subscription models have limits, because most people can only afford a few at a time.”
Pointing to the ability of digital media to produce an outlet that doesn’t require printing presses and large amounts of newsprint, McArdle wrote, “Once a digital article has been written, an increasing readership costs the publisher almost nothing; in economist-speak, the marginal cost is near zero.”
I must add a caveat to what might appear to be this column’s bias for digital media. My day is incomplete without feeling compelled to hold and read actual newspapers. But I’m paying increasing attention to digital news sources on my ever-present iPhone.
I’m just an unrepentant news junkie.
Like most everything else we do in our capitalistic society, we must pay for print and digital journalism, whether through subscriptions or donations, if we think it’s important to our lives and democracy.
We have choices.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.