Millennial readers ought to be shown journalism’s receipts

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • April 23, 2015

It took me many months to accept Spotify’s paid plan into my life. I was a skeptic of the music streaming service, holding fast to some quasi-hipster, haughty principle: I liked owning the music downloaded to my laptop, and I frequently gave a self-important sigh whenever I privately considered the fate of a generation where owning music (which, ironically, was usually illegally downloaded) was going out of style. It wasn’t until a pair of friends shot me a suspicious glare when I revealed that I didn’t have Spotify Premium that I was shamed into quickly typing in my credit card number to pay for the monthly $5 charge.

Needless to say, I’ve never looked back. No longer are my showers—usually taken to a soundtrack of TLC or early Kanye West—interrupted by an aside from the notorious Progressive saleswoman Flo asking me about my car insurance. Spotify Premium’s monthly $5 charge is worthwhile. What’s even more important, however, is not only paying for entertainment outlets like Netflix and Spotify, but also paying for news.

My reluctance to pay for something that is so clearly worth it—in my case, Spotify Premium—is reflective of our generation’s attitudes toward paying for journalism. Researchers from the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research’s Media Insight Project, a collaboration that conducts innovative media research, examined this disinterest. Their study, published in March, found that although 85 percent of people aged 18-34 said that keeping up with the news is “at least somewhat important” to them, less than half of that 85 percent—only 40 percent—paid for at least one news-specific service, app, or digital subscription. This is an entitlement that’s important to address: Young consumers understand the cost of producing music and television shows in a way that doesn’t carry over into their understanding of the cost of producing news and information.

Paying for digital subscriptions to the New York Times or the Boston Globe doesn’t seem to make a millennial’s budget in the same way entertainment subscriptions do. The Media Insight Project’s study found that 93 percent of millennials used a subscription service, with 55 percent of them paying “to download, rent, or stream movies or television shows on iTunes, Netflix, or other paid services.” Another interesting conclusion drawn based on this study: When this generation pays for news, it’s increasingly through purchasing information in its printed form, buying magazine subscriptions and printed newspapers in rates that are higher than their digital counterparts.

Obviously, I have skin in the game: I study journalism here, and I work for news organizations both local and national that rely on revenue from the subscription services that they offer. This is an industry that I’m seeking employment in, and I won’t claim that I’m only interested in some altruistic goal. Of course I’m interested in higher wages for my colleagues and myself — people with monthly student loan bills to pay and boozy brunches to buy. However, there is a deeper implication to these findings, that so many 18-34 year olds fundamentally do not understand that the reported stories they share on Twitter and the commentary they post to Facebook costs real dollars to produce, expenses they aren’t always contributing to.

In the same way that high-quality Netflix shows like Orange is the New Black and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt cost their producers cash, deeply-reported investigations of the police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri and the training of reporters embedded in foreign war zones do, too. Everyone in a newsroom—from the reporter, graphics designer, photographer, and the hierarchy of editors that perfect a story—is paid for their efforts, and the work that goes into big stories with sexy scoops and small stories about weddings or deaths have price tags. “I don’t think you should pay for news,” a 22-year-old interviewee told the Media Insight Project researchers. “That’s something everybody should be informed of. Like, you’re going to charge me for information that’s going on around the world?” Not knowing the costs, both qualitative and quantitative, that go into thorough and well-reasoned news reporting might make the 22-year-old quoted (and others like him) feel entitled to information that’s currently impossible for news organizations to pay for in a sustainable way.

Journalism as a profession is already undervalued—ours is an industry plagued with unpaid internships and underpaid professionals, where the average salary for a 2012 journalism school graduate is just over $40,000—but this is more than an issue of compensation. Information ought to be accessible, but this accessibility isn’t synonymous with being free. The robust reporting behind newspaper paywalls justifies their cost, and it’s time for our generation to acknowledge this and pay up.