Can News Be Made Into a Sustainable Business?

Of course, as Ms. Haines said, “there is no point in making journalism if people can’t afford it.” And so the conversation transitioned to the question of funding a business hurt badly by the hemorrhaging of its longtime predominant income stream, advertising, and other fiscal forces.

“You can’t do a big investigation if you are not covering the city council every day,” said Sara Just of “PBS NewsHour.” You can’t find out who the corrupt mayor is if you are not there every day.” The disappearance of that kind of local journalism, she said, is what “worries me the most. That’s not going to be the for-profit center, but it is how we find out what’s going on.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, whose publication, The Atlantic, put up a paywall shortly before the pandemic, argued for a subscriber-funded model: “Our industry made a mistake 20 years ago by giving away quality journalism for free — we trained readers to expect something that took work, time and energy and funding and we gave it away. And we have to stop doing that.”

Introducing The Atlantic’s paywall brought with it “a different set of anxieties,” Mr. Goldberg acknowledged, such as forcing decisions about which work should be published for free in the public interest and which work to reserve for paying subscribers. He noted that if a reader is coming from a Ukraine or Russian IP address, for example, the publication’s Russian and Ukrainian coverage is free.

“What you said about ‘we made a huge mistake in giving it away for free’: I came to the opposite conclusion,” said Lauren Williams of Capital B, a publication founded this year to deliver “straight reporting” to Black audiences whose views span the political spectrum. “After running a nonprofit for two years, I am totally radicalized.” Ms. Williams argued that there must be at least a segment of news covering essential information that is accessible to people.

“There is plenty of room for different models,” summarized William Kristol, editor-at-large of The Bulwark, a publication spawned by disaffected conservatives during the Trump administration.

However, Mr. Kristol did see a failure by philanthropy: “People can give money to what they want, but I would say if you came from Mars and looked at the distribution of what people are supporting, you would be a little surprised.” Ms. Williams said a lot of people are not aware that there is “an enormous local news problem.”


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