I got into journalism because I thought I could make a difference. I wanted to right wrongs, fight for the little guy, root out government corruption, dig deep into conspiracies and cover-ups. I knew it would never really be a lucrative career, but I didn’t care. I wanted my work to have purpose, to contribute to society.
And because my skills in math and science are laughable, I chose to become a journalist where my skills are merely functional. And it’s been a lot of fun.
Over the years, one of the most impressive things about working in a newsroom is watching it respond to a crisis. This one has been no different. In fact, in my 25 years as a journalist here, it’s probably been the finest example of how indispensable a newspaper can be. If ever there was a time when the people of this community could be proud of their local newspaper, now is that time.
Being on the inside, I can let you all in on a little secret about newsrooms: They’re full of curmudgeonly, bitter, surly, skeptical and cynical folks. Language fit for a sailor bounces around the room.
On a busy day I can walk out of my office and hear Mark Fischenich asking tough questions of a city or county official, Kristine Goodrich on the phone with an area fire chief demanding details on an overnight blaze, or Tim Krohn asking his wife if they should head up to the cabin Thursday night or Friday morning.
But when something like this happens, journalists respond. They know there are people relying on them to be on top of their game. And they want to do the best they can not because their boss expects it or to win some kind of an award. They genuinely want to serve. Of course they get a paycheck, but if you asked any of them during this crisis if they’d work for free to help get critical information about the pandemic into the hands of the people who need it, none of them would hesitate to say yes.
And I’m not just saying this because I work here. I’m saying this because, after 25 years, I know this newsroom, I know these journalists, I know that when all hell breaks loose, these people are invested in this community and will work their tails off to help in any way they can.
Which brings me to my next point.
The Free Press, like many media outlets around the country, made the bold move of making online content “free," which is not to say it is "without cost." Usually, our online site allows readers to access a limited number of articles before requiring a subscription. But because we believe people’s ability to pay shouldn’t determine whether or not they have access to information that could affect their health, we made our COVID-19 coverage "free."
At first, I thought “Hey, now that’s a good, noble thing for us to be doing." Of course we shouldn’t make people have to pay for that. Not now. Not when people are dying. Not when life as we know it is transforming to something completely different.
But then I read something that made me think twice about our decision.
A blog post written by Howard Saltz at the Poynter Institute takes a different view on removing the pay wall. (Poynter is sort of hallowed ground for journalism. They provide training, promote good work, and generally try to keep the industry heading in the right direction ethically and financially.)
I’m going to quote a lengthy section of his blog post because I find it intriguing. Howard says:
“Imagine you operate a once-profitable business that has recently fallen on hard times. Revenue is down. Way down. Then, suddenly, there’s a newfound interest in your product. Demand is up. You have an opportunity to bring back some of that lost revenue. So you look at your prices and decide … to give away your product for free.
How’s that for a business strategy?
And yet that’s what most U.S. newspapers are doing during the coronavirus crisis. When the pandemic hit, we adjusted or eliminated paywalls to make our coronavirus coverage free. You can read it online, whether you’re a paid subscriber or not.
It’s a noble thing to do. News organizations have a unique public service role in the communities they cover.
It also makes no sense.
Newspapers throughout the country knee-jerked when the virus hit. With only a few exceptions — the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe, most notably — the paywalls that allowed only subscribers to access content were dropped. That changed a little this week when McClatchy, publisher of The Miami Herald and The Kansas City Star and the nation’s second-largest newspaper group, decided to wall off only certain coronavirus stories. Breaking stories affecting health and safety will still be available, free to all.
It’s a step in the right direction, but McClatchy — and the rest of the industry — should go all the way. Put the paywalls back up. We never should have taken them down.”
Is Howard right? I don’t know. He goes on to say that food is essential, but you’ll never see a grocery store giving away loaves of bread. Police are essential, but you’ll never see officers patrolling the streets without expecting a paycheck (and they absolutely should be paid for their work). So why are newspapers different?
I don’t know if they are or not. But here’s one thing I do know: In this case, I’d rather we be noble than be paid. I know it’s super easy for me, a person who is employed, to sit here and say that when others around the country aren't as lucky. But when I look back at how my news organization responded to this and how it stepped up to help its community, I think I’m going to be proud of The Free Press. You should be, too.
I mentioned last week that I’m leaving The Free Press in June, so you'll only have to put up with me for a few more weeks. But I have a request, folks. If you’re able, and if you’ve found — like I have — that the reporters and editors and photographers from The Free Press newsroom have done a great job in trying to cover this story from every angle and get you the news you need to stay informed during this crisis … maybe let them know you appreciate it.
Shoot them an email. Tell our newsroom leaders, Joe Spear and Kathy Vos — who have logged countless hours on this story — that their work matters. Call a reporter. Stop a photographer when you see them on the street and tip your hat to them (from six feet away, of course).
They'll all hate that I'm saying this, of course, but your local newspaper absolutely deserves a pat on the back for this one.
Robb Murray can be reached at email@example.com or (507) 344-6386. Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb.