Millennials want free news — so who’s going to pay for it?

By Caitlin Kelly

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58

From the Nieman Lab:

In addition to the broader survey data, researchers did deeper interviews with 23 millennials in three different locations around the country. Those interviews revealed a reluctance among some interviewees to pay for news online.

“I don’t think you should pay for news,” Eric, a 22-year-old Chicagoan, said. “That’s something everybody should be informed in. Like, you’re going to charge me for information that’s going on around the world?” And then there’s 19-year-old Sam from San Francisco: “I really wouldn’t pay for any type of news because as a citizen it’s my right to know the news.”

A sample of 23 is small and not, per se, worth commenting on, but the larger report is well worth a read if you’re at all interested in the current production and consumption of news; as a career journalist, I am!

It’s no secret that journalism is in deep trouble a period of disruption as digital media have claimed readers and advertising dollars from print, whether newspapers or magazines.

In the year 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, (I lost mine in 2006), and many of them left the industry for good, fleeing to new careers if they could find one.

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

In nine days, my husband leaves his workplace of 30 years, The New York Times. He has loved it and is leaving by choice, having accepted a buyout package that will never again be as generous, and one we need to secure our retirement.

He’s had an amazing run — including photographing two Olympics, (Atlanta and Calgary), three Presidents, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war before working another 15 years as a picture editor inside the newsroom.

While he is retiring from the Times, he’s now seeking a new full-time position as it’s another decade before full-time retirement is an affordable option for us.

As two journos who’ve been doing this work since we were undergrads at college, (he in New Mexico, I in Toronto), we know what it still takes to produce quality journalism:



Software developers and designers

Time (to find and develop deeply reported stories)

A skilled team of tough editors — copy editors, section editors, masthead editors, photo editors


Graphic designers and page designers



Paying subscribers and advertisers

Several major newspapers, as the Chicago Sun-Times did in 2013, have actually fired their entire photo staff and either relied on readers to submit their images or asked their writers to snap pix with their cellphones and/or shoot video while out reporting.

Madness. (Cheap, affordable, looks great to the bean-counters.)

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015, which I attended and reported on here at Broadside
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015, which I attended and reported on here at Broadside

One of the sad truths about technology is that it offers the misleading illusion of ease — i.e. ready access = skill.


Thousands of people now style themselves as writers and photographers simply because they can hit “publish” on their home keyboard or snap some cellphone pix and upload them to Instagram.

It’s a fallacy, and one that journalism doesn’t help by keeping its production line, and the costs of hiring and retaining quality, essentially invisible to its consumers.

Do you trust the media? Should you?
Do you trust the media? Should you?

I think most of us realize that the steak we eat or the car we drive or the table we sit at are all products of a long production line of design, growth, production, manufacturing and distribution. We know they are businesses whose role is to earn profit.

Not so much for the naive/ignorant who think “news” is something that magically just appears on their Twitter feed or Facebook pages.

But the move is toward mobile consumption of news, as this 2013 Poynter Institute report explained:

This is why news organizations should shift to a mobile-first approach immediately. This doesn’t mean we ignore the desktop, but prioritize mobile over it — make mobile the default everything. When brainstorming a new product, start with a phone or tablet design and work backwards to the desktop. Set performance goals based on mobile performance over desktop. Conduct research that emphasizes mobile over desktop behavior. Put mobile numbers at the top of analytics reports. Compare competitive performance on mobile numbers first, desktop second. We need to immerse ourselves in devices and become a student of the industry…

Above all, we need to invest and experiment like never before. Whatever you’re spending now, triple it.

“When the Web was new, many of us went online with creativity and energy,” says Regina McCombs, who teaches mobile at Poynter. “Now, faced with even bigger potential and pitfalls for developing — or losing — our audience, most of us are getting by with as little investment as we can. That’s scary.”

Voters, readers, viewers, listeners, the curious and engaged — in order to learn what’s happening in the world, whether in our town or 12 times zones distant — still need smart, tough, skilled, disengaged, (i.e.  as objective as possible), trained and ethical reporters with boots on the ground.

Noooooo. Don't take my job away!!!!
Noooooo. Don’t take my job away!!!!

While the Associated Press is now using robots to write sports and business stories, many of us still want our news, whether consuming or producing it, to come from real people with real editors who will question their facts and assumptions hard before publication or broadcast.

In an era of racing to clickbait, it’s even more essential — (she harrumphed)–  to have some clear idea where the “news” is coming from and through what lenses and filters.

Here are six ways that digital journalism differs from print, from Contently; one of them, written with chilling casualness, by a young digital journalist:

The sourcing requirements for print outlets can be so stringent that I often joke a print writer must quote a professional astronomer before claiming that the sun will rise in the morning. Yet online, authors are commonly allowed—and even expected—to exert their own authority. And even when they cannot claim to be experts, many bloggers use their inexperience as a way to write from the perspective of a novice.

Again, this comes down to speed. Online writing has such different sourcing standards than print because it’s much easier to hyperlink to source material instead of explicitly attributing and fact-checking information.

The bold face above is mine — this is exactly my point.

I have zero interest in the “perspective of a novice”, for fucks’ sake.

On Isis? On the economy? On climate change?

And fact-checking? Yes, I want that, too. (Many of my magazine pieces are still subject to independent fact-checking.)

“Free” or cheap news doesn’t mean, or guarantee, excellent.





26 thoughts on “Millennials want free news — so who’s going to pay for it?

  1. I completely agree with everything you’ve said here. I’m not even sure how to respond to that Contently piece… of course we need experts, fact-checking, and accountability in journalism!

  2. Well-said Caitlin! Thank you. I shared your piece on Facebook.

    The expectation that all this work will be offered for free is naive, unreasonable, and unfair. Similar things are happening in music and it becomes ever harder to make a living as a professional. Thank you for writing so eloquently on behalf of creative professionals (and the public – who stands to lose so much more than they apparently realize!).

  3. themodernidiot

    and the Huffington post leads the charge with totally unedited bullshit and the myth that anyone can “write.” it’s painful to watch.

    how can we make well-informed choices if we are overwhelmingly misinformed?

    well, I suppose we could start by visiting more libraries than websites…

    thanks for the integrity, my friend. it reassures.

    1. Not to mention that millionaire Arianna doesn’t pay her writers. Which is why (you might have noticed) I almost never link to HuffPo. Her “business model” (i.e. rank exploitation of naievete and “exposure” appalls me.)

      1. themodernidiot

        agreed. I suppose she doesn’t have to since they think getting posted on the huff is a substitute for real street cred. kinda like security guards that think the polyester makes them cops.

      2. themodernidiot

        if you’re a stand-up, artist, or a musician, sure. And I suppose some folks have hit that lottery. But in the current pool of writers, I fail to find a talent that is complete with research plus literary skills. No matter how fancy the second, it doesn’t amount to squat without integrity of the first. Everything I read now is fiction or worse, copy and paste collages with bloody animated gigs and/or videos. When you wrote about millenials who think they should get their news for free, is it possible it’s because this noise I what they think is news; and since this can all be created for free from a dorm room laptop, perhaps they’re under the assumption that’s how real journalism is done too?

        Found this little gem last night by accident. Worth a watch. About an hour.

      3. I have no idea. I do know what “journalism” means to me and to many others….but who will pony up the cash to allow us to keep making our Ye Olde Artisanal version of it? You know the kind with facts in it.

      4. themodernidiot

        there’s got to be another way out of this that doesn’t just have us wait for the hundred-year cycle of give-a-shit to come back around lol

  4. Jim McKeever

    The once-daily, now thrice-weekly newspaper in Syracuse, NY, still does solid journalism but it’s hard to find on its website, which is dominated by celebrities, pathetic crimes near and far, sports gossip and sensational crap. Trolls are allowed to trash innocent people at will anonymously, as this is “community engagement” and generates lots of clicks. I hope this business model falls on its face, and quickly. (Two years ago, this paper laid off 60-plus from the newsroom and another 40 or so employees. I was fortunate to take a buyout in 2007.
    By the way, no one calls it “the paper” anymore, because it isn’t.)

    1. Ouch!

      I think this downhill slide is very typical of the thrashing/flailing news business where they keep trying to reinvent — while hiring younger and younger (cheaper) and less experienced “digital natives.” Blergh.

  5. i agree with all of this, caitlin. what other industry would be people be expected to offer or receive goods or services for free? i’m sad to see the way the industry is going, as newspapers and magazines are some of my favorite things in life.

  6. Scott Bowen

    I’ve always loathed how various news web sites, including a couple major ones, ask readers to send in their photos of live events. I can see the temptation on the reader’s part — “Oh, used my photo. Cool!” — but the reader ends up giving a corporate entity free material while undermining the use of competent work by professionals. However, I can also see how citizen-gathered images, at street level, have more impact with some viewers and readers because this content is “honest”; i.e., it’s not material captured through a staff professional’s lens/eye, but raw, crude, and reflective of the “realness” of the images on anyone’s smart phone. If everyone has a camera, whose photography is most valid for illustrating a public event with multiple witnesses?

    1. A very good question to ask — with some liquor handy — next time you and Jose meet! 🙂

      I think there is room for both, but very clearly labeled as such and with multiple caveats as to authenticity.

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  8. I think one of the problems is that quality publications, in the hope of “not falling behind,” have resorted to a “click-bait” style online offering alongside their otherwise excellent reporting. From a commercial perspective, this muddies their brand. In an age where information travels via Twitter feeds, I think it’s inevitable that the bare-bone headline news will be available for free. But that’s blurred the distinction between basic information sharing – eg “plane crashes in Alps” (short enough for a Tweet) and analysis – eg “How could it have happened?” (which would require research, expert knowledge and background reporting)
    I’d be interested in what the survey sample would have answered to the question: “Are you prepared to pay for quality news?” It’s an important distinction. Having grown up with social media, I know how unrealistic it would be to try to make people pay for the bare-bone news. However, I’m more than willing to pay for a well-researched piece which will provide me with knowledge and a perspective which can’t be packaged into a Tweet. The Economist seems to be doing well with its model of paid content. I think that’s because it’s positioned itself clearly on one side – it’s about quality over clicks. When publications mix dubious listicles and gifs with in-depth reporting, you no longer know quite what you’re signing up for.

  9. Free, cheap or paid for, the issue is talent, honesty and standards. Writing in nanoseconds without fact checking is a scary bit–and seems to happen more and more in the online world. I would love to be a fly on the wall in a J101 class today . . .

  10. You know, I understand your concerns. It’s really a terrifying time to be a journalist in many ways. Well, to be in publishing on any level, really. The bean counters are trying to get things done without losing money for their companies, while we’re trying to figure out how to let people know that good writers are still relevant.

    However, I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom.

    This is an exciting time for journalists. We have an opportunity now the likes of which haven’t been seen since newspapers first started getting published. We have a new medium to show off in and prove our value with. It’s just a matter of figuring out the right formula to get the job done. It’s up to the traditional journalists to identify the novice writers with real talent and choose to actively mentor the upcoming generations of future reporters and editors. It’s up to us to make sure we DO fact check and debunk the lazy or low quality amateur nonsense with real news stories that impact the world and leave a lasting impression. This is nothing we haven’t faced before when radio and then TV came out. Both of those were going to wipe us off the map too, but we’re still here. We get to be pioneers in our own field again.

    And that’s more than just a little bit awesome.

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