A reader reacts to our editorial about the necessity of paying for news (and our response).
By Matt Skoufalos | July 8, 2017
In our Fourth of July editorial, “Freedom Isn’t Free, and Neither is a Free Press,” we asked our audience to consider what it takes to gather, report, and publish the information NJ Pen provides.
“Nowadays, we enjoy generally unfettered access to the knowledge of the world, and we have grown accustomed to the ease of it,” we wrote.
But that information “was gathered at a cost…was shared at a cost. And if the ledger remains unbalanced, the system on which it was built will collapse.”
Paying for content is something that many news audiences haven’t grown accustomed to, but it’s vital to keeping our operations running. Ad revenues alone aren’t enough. When even the highest ad-revenue-generating news outlets on the planet are asking subscribers to chip in, you know this is a concern.
For a small organization such as ours, it doesn’t take much to keep the lights on. A modest, monthly contribution from our audience is enough to do it. As more people kick in, we can do even more work than we’ve done these past three years, but we’re not there yet.
One reader, however, took exception to the question, and offered his own take, which we’ll share here.
I’ve noticed that you seem to be talking a lot more about getting folks to pay for the content on your site, even going so far as to claim that it should be treated like a utility bill.
However, you forget that the consumption of news already costs us, as it takes our time to consume it (as well as time to observe the ads that come with it). In addition the lack of willingness to pay for content generally can be attributed to two things: either a lack of quality content or an overabundance of other, cheaper content.
Your site, while having some very good content, does not have a significant amount of it. The $9 a month fee works out to almost a dollar per real article when you exclude things like the Weekly Recaps. That’s a ridiculous price to ask a reader to pay.
The other issue is the over-abundance of similar content that is cheaper. Local news can be found on many different sites from Philly.com, to the Courier-Post, to Patch. All for cheaper.
I would suggest not writing articles that tell the reader to pay for the content, but instead write such great content that readers will be happy to pay for it.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s worthwhile to explore it. It opens the door for us to help all our readers understand exactly why it’s vital that they help financially contribute to sustaining our operations.
We do believe that good information is as valuable to our quality of life as utilities like heat, light, and running water.
These days, we add Internet service to that list of necessities, and as we do, I say we add reliable, accurate, vetted information as well.
Without it, we have no opportunity for peace of mind.
As the editor, founder, and pretty much the sole writer of this site, I actually believe this so much that I don’t paywall the news that I gather and publish because I think an informed public is a public good.
But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be paid for what I do. My work and the mission behind it are grounded in a sense of ethics that expects the readers who consume my information to acknowledge the unique value of it, and to want there to be more of it. Naturally, the way to do that with something you like is to pay a small amount of money to keep it going.
Nine bucks a month is negligible to most people for the value of staying informed about things they might not otherwise learn about, or to find an account of recent local history when they want to know why or how something happened. Many other content services are priced similarly. I think it’s a price the market should be able to bear.
And I know that lots of people are benefiting from this work. In the last 30 days alone, NJ Pen has clocked more than 100,000 pageviews and 45,000-plus users accessed the page. We’re approaching 2 million pageviews since we launched three years ago. And we only cover nine towns.
We have fewer than 100 paying subscribers.
I don’t follow the logic that our work isn’t competitively priced because people also read other content, or that there’s more to read elsewhere, so our work isn’t worth what we’re asking.
If I produced as much content as my competitors, I would be doing business like many of them do: aggregating wire service stories, running pickups of viral news, breaking things into slideshows to raise clicks, adding sponsored content formatted to look like reporting.
There is value in NJ Pen being an independent service. We don’t have any corporate masters. There’s nobody telling me what news to report or to avoid. There’s no boss threatening my position, nobody tying my (non-existent) salary to my pageviews—things that other reporters face that absolutely affect the way they do their jobs.
The value of NJ Pen lies in being a distinct voice in the region. Small-town news isn’t small to the people who live there. We write what’s meaningful, we break a lot of stories, and the ones that we don’t, we try to offer our own take with lots of context. Much of our work comes in the form of feature-length stories that take time to research, write, and edit.
Plus, again, there’s one employee here: me. I produce (almost) all the content. It takes all my time. I don’t make enough money to live on it, so I have to take more time away from this business to do side work, which as our reader notes above, affects my output.
I also don’t understand his idea that reading my work costs him time. Even if it did, it wouldn’t cost him as much time to read as it took me to produce it. Besides, the work itself has an innate value independent of the amount of time it takes to make or consume.
When I publish information, it’s the finished result of a production process.
When you read it, you absorb the value of the information.
As long as I’m around to keep the site up, you even have it to refer back to in the future. That’s residual value.
Since I don’t paywall my archives either, it’s having your cake and eating it too.
Still on the fence? Check out our highlights from the last year, which extend far beyond the quantitative output of the number of stories we produce. Things like our election guides, hosted community events, and moderated political forums are just a few of the responsibilities we take on because they have merit and require an independent hand to guide them.
It really goes like this: if you don’t find NJ Pen valuable, please don’t read it. But if you do read it, please have the integrity to pay a few bucks a month to keep it going. And if our current payment mechanisms don’t fit your budget, send me a note, and let’s find another way to contribute that works for you. Because we can’t keep this going without your support.
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