I have realised that when I write news analysis articles for no recompense, even when it’s my choice, I feel less pressure than usual to try to do the absolute best I can do. This doesn’t mean I don’t put in any effort when I’m writing for my own account, but I’m not going to put in the extra effort I feel payment morally if not legally entails. When no money changes hands my attitude is: This is what I have written, and if you don’t like it, don’t publish it.
Someone is always paying the writer. By writing “for free” – as in a blog – I am in effect paying with my time to have my work published. The reader is entitled to ask why. Sometimes, as with this note, it is because I just have to get something off my chest. So this kind of writing can be a form of thinking aloud before launching into deeper research. I could also be giving publicity to research that has already been paid for.
Sometimes, something is offered for publication for free because the publicity burnishes the reputation of the individual or organisation associated with the writing. Articles in newspapers or online on tax by companies that make money by advising on tax matters are an example. Articles by academics, repurposing their research, advertise the academic and the university or the research project.
Sometimes the answer is that a donor is subsidising a platform or publication because they believe a certain message should be conveyed, or an ideology supported. There is nothing wrong with this as long as there is transparency about who is paying and what they want in return. Investigative journalism, for example, would suffer without subsidies from donors.
True, traditional, paid media is not always trustworthy on every topic, and blogs, funded online alternative media and even non-news organisations such as SA’s statistical agency are increasingly providing different truths. It is noteworthy, however, that in an age where anyone can post their own blogs with ease, traditional media is still valued as an outlet even by writers whose views can be seen as to some extent “alternative”.
I pay trusted online news sites – and donate to non-profit news organisations – for news that I can trust. This does not mean taking all news from those sites at face value or subscribing to the ideology of the platform. What it does mean is that I am not going to pay on a regular basis for ill-researched opinion, peculiar news values, propaganda puff pieces and rewritten press releases.
If you say you get all your news “for free” on Facebook, ask yourself what credibility it has. Online advertising is not hugely profitable for news websites. Online news sites relying on advertising are either losing money or getting a lot of traffic through clickbait or they are not paying for content. Such clickbait sites get around the problem of generating news by plagiarism or just making stuff up – so-called “Fake News”.
If they don’t rely on advertising, they are being sponsored by someone. Find out who it is. The wmcleaks website, for instance, was launched to smear investigative journalists and was part of an attempt to defend State Capture in South Africa by neutralising new media exposing the culprits. If you can’t determine who is behind a news website, it’s a good bet that website fabricates or twists news.
The news websites of established news organisations that make their news and opinion articles freely available with only the minimal advertising revenue available online pose an interesting set of questions.
The websites of broadcast media, such as the EWN website or the CNN website, are an add-on to the main revenue-earning business of the organisation. They need not earn much revenue and they boost the brand and entrench the organisation in the mind of the audience – especially so in the case of the BBC, which is not funded by ad revenue but by the UK license-paying public.
Some of the formerly free-to-read websites of commercial newspaper groups are going behind paywalls, switching ad revenue for subscriber revenue. Also, news organisations are increasingly looking for multi-stream revenue.
The fashion for having multiple revenue streams to fund media organisations has its own set of problems. One problem with multiple streams is: What is actually your business? If the event management business you run on the side becomes more profitable than the news business, and consumes more of the staff time, should you still produce news? Another more serious problem is possible contamination from the different streams. For example, if you run a PR business alongside a news agency business, can your news agency business be credibly independent of the PR side?
For newspapers that do not move behind a paywall or find major sources of new funding, the question is: How long will you survive republishing freely available news from the dying Print editions that provide your lifeline unless you can find an alternative revenue source?
My experience of South African newspapers in the 20thCentury, the dominant, traditional news source for the printed word before the Internet, is that they have never been totally commercial. Unravelling the motives of the early newspaper owners is difficult, but there is evidence that they too were driven by both political and money motives, and in any case in business these two forces often overlap. Certainly, the Afrikaans Press, though it later became focused on the commercial imperative, was started to advance Afrikaner interests and grew in influence along with Afrikaner nationalism. Afrikaner business and individuals were the source of the subsidy.
The English Press was kept independent by Anglo American, which dominated the business scene, for decades. What Anglo got for that is a Press supportive of business and strongly, consciously anti-apartheid while at the same time anti-socialist (and therefore sometimes anti-ANC). There was nothing secret about Anglo’s backing for a version of liberal ideas.
My theory is that the Press particularly has often been used to further the specific commercial interests of the owner in ways ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle, as well as for political interests – and, again, these overlap. Clearly this is problematic and only competing news organisations can defend against that (one form of competition is fact-checking journalism, another is investigative journalism, both donor-funded).
Finally, let’s not forget a major source of subsidy for news organisations – journalists willing to work for little money in pursuit of ideals. The difference between no money and not enough money to make a job worthwhile is surprisingly slim, however. Hence the turnover in journalism in the past and the exodus to other professions or trades.
Don’t let anyone beguile you into thinking money doesn’t matter. For the audience, “‘Free’ is the cheese in the mousetrap,” as the saying goes. Writers should remember that they can’t eat exposure or personal “branding” and that it’s hard to continue fighting for ideals on an empty stomach.