I think I have a local perspective on the controversial decision to start charging for online access to the Ledger.
I’ve stood on both sides of this digital media divide. Growing up, there was nothing greater than my local paper. The men and women who covered local news were the foot soldiers in the Fourth Estate’s battle against corruption. When I became bored with math as a career, I stumbled into journalism. I stumbled back out when I decided I needed better pay and some time for myself.
Because, those of you who haven’t tried it, journalism isn’t a job. It’s a calling and it changes your life. You work many of your waking hours. You try to keep the job and home completely separate, but you fail. Stories don’t happen on a 9-5 schedule. The bad guys don’t send press releases listing their crimes that you can print verbatim and call it a day. There’s a reason you have to “dig” a story. People bury the truth so deep, you need a backhoe. That kind of work takes time and dedication. You certainly don’t do the job for the perks — bad eyesight, hunched back and the full knowledge your retirement fund will be eaten by a corporate raider.
You don’t do it for the readers. Many readers will claim they want good news, but only share the bad. Then they’ll claim all you ever write is bad news. The number of times you’ll hear — “thanks for exposing that crook” — will be low enough you’ll be able to remember most examples. More often you’ll hear your best work was only good enough for wrapping fish.
You don’t do it for the money. The only local journalist I ever met with a huge portfolio started with a trust fund. The pay sucks. The benefits are worse. People think because they learned to write in elementary school, the journalist doesn’t have a talent worth rewarding.
So you work as a journalist for yourself. You get satisfaction out of presenting the news in a manner that helps readers understand complex events that affect their life. You may not hear “kudos” when you shine light on the dark world of government, but when a corrupt politician is voted out of office, you know whose work helped the voters decide.
Local journalists improve their community. How many of us would be glad to know, as we left this world, that we made it a better place through our work? I hope every reader thought “I would.” You would think those commenting on Jerome Ferson’s announcement would consider that work, but…
Many lambasted the paper for daring to charge for a product that contains punctuation and spelling errors. My response: you want everything reported seconds after it appears and you worry about perfect punctuation?! (That’s an interrobang, in case you’re not up on my favorite punctuation.) Now, I also wince when I see a glaring spelling error on the front page. But I wince because I know how streamlined the paper has become in these tight times. There’s just not as much cash on hand for the numerous copy editors, proofreaders and pressmen as there were in the days when papers were error free. (Note to readers: papers were never error free. Ten people could look at a story and every one of them missed the double “of” on line seven.) So, if the few people who have the time to read the story before it goes online missed an extra “i” in digital, well, that’s the price you pay for the 86,400 second a day news cycle. (Who noticed my missing dashes?)
Those who didn’t complain about spelling took the paper to task for charging for something they can get elsewhere for free. I can say something Ferson can’t: You’re dreaming if you think you can get consistent and comprehensive coverage of local government, corporations and corruption for free. TANSTAAFL people.
All the news sources start with someone local putting finger to keyboard. That news you think is free on Yahoo is subsidized by someone. The same is true for Bay News Nine, Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and every-single other news source you can name.
But wait, someone shouts from the ether. “What about Lakeland Local?! It was free and you always promised it would stay that way.” I did. It still is.
But if you think the words “comprehensive” or “consistent” when you look at the history of Lakeland Local, you’ve set the bar very low. I was the primary “City Hall” reporter for Lakeland Local these past years. I didn’t cover the city as comprehensively as the team from the Ledger. Sure, maybe I got to a story first a few times, or covered one a little deeper. Usually it was because I could spend as long as I needed without worry of deadline. But I never had the resources that the Ledger could bring to bear. It takes money to request records. It takes copy editors, editors, photographers, and dozens of others to make that front page story pop. You’re not going to get that on a consistent basis from a free online magazine.
Yes, I had a consistent niche where I was usually the lone journalist — live reporting of tedious meetings. Well, that was subsidized. Those few who benefited from reading the blow-by-blow descriptions can thank my wife. She paid for my meals, health insurance and the incidentals that allowed me to be a stay-at-home father and freelance writer. Lakeland Local was what I did in my spare time…and what spare time I had was thanks to her. So, see, even Lakeland Local wasn’t free. You just never had to pay the cost.
So let me finish the headline…
…a great thing.
Kudos to The Ledger for charging for their work. I knew this day would come. Even when others believed the New York Times would keep the locals free, I knew they couldn’t. Primarily because the owner of the New York Times was tired of losing money. Also because of a strange quirk of human behavior. We so rarely respect what we get for free. (Now a good copy editor would have fixed that paragraph, but who can afford a good copy editor?)
Do I agree completely with their pricing structure? Not exactly. I’d give every library and school IP address free access or free accounts. I’d allow articles over a month old outside the paywall. But those are both technical hurdles most newspapers won’t see as needed. They have stockholders who want better returns on their investments.
What The Ledger does need is a way to make journalism pay enough to keep journalism alive. If they don’t figure out a way to do that — Polk County will suffer. Governments, police departments, corporations, bad car salesmen and numerous other “bad guys” have one natural enemy — the unconstrained press*. Make sure you pay enough to keep journalism alive.
* — I would have written “free,” but that seems to have confused a few people.