Click Here for More

After the strain of the last few days, the husband and I went out to dinner together tonight (at my workplace, admittedly). It’s always a nice relief to just sit and chat and enjoy each other’s company, without a screen or a big block of work between us. I do miss that. Don’t we all?

One thing that we started talking about was the sharp decline in journalism and the fact that we’ve both found ourselves with more and more rubbish, click-baity articles filling our newsfeeds. This sounds like the typical grumble of aging people. “Things used to be better. I miss those things.” But it’s true. It seems like every time I sit in front of my computer I’m reading five or six “articles” which are so badly written and lacking in research (and all on supposedly legitimate news sites) that I end up wondering what on earth I’m doing with my life.

It all comes down to money though, doesn’t it? (And the relative skill and intelligence of an editor.) Virtually nobody buys newspapers anymore. Ad revenues have fallen as subscriptions have fallen. We still seem to think we’re entitled to free content anywhere on the internet, but good journalism is a paid profession.

I find that I’m leaning on sites like BBC and The Guardian more and more. It’s not that the British are better at journalism (although these are very respected and well-established news organizations), it’s just that they post very good content and haven’t yet put up pay walls. It won’t last forever though. Increasingly the free news sites are turning into a muesli of reader-written posts, pop-science and Kardasians, while the news outlets with actual standards (like the NY Times) are putting up blocks that make you pay to read.

But I still won’t pay. And why not? My husband are I are getting older, but we’re also in that transitional age where we’ve paid for magazine and newspaper subscriptions before (when they were actual paper) but still see the internet as inherently free. If we want to be be able to read actual news, then that’s got to change. And soon.

We actually got onto this subject by segueing off the discussion about paying for music. We’re both strongly in favor of that. We’d both rather buy an album than rip it off. Again, we’re both old enough to have ripped off music before (even all the way back, when we’d literally tape songs off the radio rather than buying the single). But the music industry has done a lot of work to try and talk people around to buying content off the internet. We do understand that if we want good music (and if we want musicians to be able to make a living) then we have to pay for it. Things like iTunes have made it easy and convenient – with a small fee per song, which seems appealing and very affordable… until you buy song after song and quickly realize that you’ve just spent ninety bucks.

News outlets seem to have so far not caught on to this iTunes effect – instead putting up pay walls that tend to ask for the ninety bucks upfront, rather than allowing you to trickle through payments with every story. It’s not smart marketing, because I balk at the $90 but would quite happily pay 50c per article if I like the first few sentences and want to keep reading below the line. 50c seems like so little for that moment’s distraction. And given how much I read… $90 would come around very quickly.

It requires a very different journalistic mindset though, and the ability to set up an easy way to charge someone’s card for every click. It would mean that articles in newspapers would have to go back to being written like articles in academic journals – start with the abstract and explain what the reader is about to read – or like the teasing chapters old-fashioned serial fiction. You want to click for more. You need to click for more. You must know what happens next.

The serialization of information – a free teaser and then paying for the next installment – is a very time-honored technique. Charles Dickens originally wrote his novels as series of chapters in magazines, which is why the chapters of his novels all tend to end with cliffhangers. You need to buy the next edition because you have to keep reading. Even if you don’t like the book and think it’s rubbish, you figure you may as well keep going to find out what happens. 50 Shades of Grey (for all its many, many faults) is structured in the same way. Virtually all television outlets understand the appeal of serialization. It plays into human curiosity and it works well.

Plus it’s profitable. EL James didn’t even have to worry about paying for the good/smart editor. Everyone shelled out their money regardless.

There’s something to this…

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