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Addicted to free

BY KURT CUNNINGHAM | MAY 15, 2009 7:26 AM

“I’ll take a coffee and a paper.”

And so it goes — the age-old of tradition of breakfast and news. For some, those were the first words spoken in the morning.

But then, the Internet came along, ruining the idea of black smudged hands, coffee-stained shirts, and angry readers who feel journalists are unfairly biased (well, maybe the last two are still around). Internet cafés are replacing paperboys, and smudge-free fingers are replacing the need to roll up your sleeves.

More newspapers are turning into web-only editions. Consumers are downloading applications to their iPhone, BlackBerry, or smartphone of choice to view daily headlines. Newspapers continue to lay off workers, trim circulation, and fade into the background.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents for supporting me through the strange transitional period of news media. After all, as my financial advisers, they have a stake in my career aspirations.

Nevertheless, readership of news has grown and people across the nation are looking to digest it anyway possible. While newspapers are slipping, demand for content is steadily growing.

What does that mean for journalists?

In short, newspapers need to find a way to wean consumers off of their addiction to free content. In order to be viable, news organizations have to implement a system of charging for electronic content.

News was never given away to our parents or grandparents. They likely paid something between a penny and a dollar to get a morning broadsheet.

So, I ask, why give it away for free now? Why not use the Internet as a means for displaying more content on endless amounts of room.

Similar to ranchers and the vast plains they once roamed, Internet ranchers herd their minds from one page to the next, taking in as much information as possible.

The Internet’s mind-blowingly spacious capacity gives journalists the ability to post videos, pictures, notes, and interactive graphics to explain the story. And oh so much more.

Basically, newspeople are producing more content and higher-quality content than ever. Why give that away for free?

Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media giant, recently declared, “The days of free are over,” the Associated Press reports.

In the same article, Ryan Chittum, a business writer at the Columbia Journalism Review, explained that the current business model for newspapers is not working and will not work online. “The ad revenue is just not there.”

Already, Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal successfully charges for online content. The media mogul’s controlling stake in the New York Post, the Times of London, and the Australian are potential guinea pigs for the next paid online websites.

Many newspeople fear repercussions that could result from charging for content. However, I still find myself siding with Murdoch in the belief that news outlets should ask readers to hand over money in exchange for the news.

I have always told myself that if the story is good enough, I would do it for free. If it takes all the money I have to bring down corruption in a giant business through my expert watchdog reporting, I will do it. But, let’s be honest — my first priority has to be to make a living to support myself.
I fully support Murdoch’s decision to begin charging for online content. That’s not because I am against giving the news away or because I’m greedy, but because money is necessary in order for good journalism to happen.

This is just like the music-industry controversy over illegal downloading that has festered for so long. After the Napster era, we decided that music shouldn’t be free. There’s no reason we shouldn’t take the same approach to journalism. And, let’s not forget, the people behind the bylines you read each day aren’t multimillionaire muscians; they’re regular people who are working hard to make a living.

As another group of students graduate from the UI’s journalism school and prepare to find jobs, I offer this bit of advice: Be wise, and understand that you may have to do more than pitch stories, interview sources, and write great stories. But do not let that discourage you from keeping readers informed and government agencies in check.

Convergence is the best thing for a rising journalist. It allows us to tell stories in ways we couldn’t before.

Though the phrase “I’ll take a coffee and a paper,” might transform into, “I’ll take a coffee and a password,” readers are still eager to read what you write, and politicians are still worried about what you will say.


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