Occasionally I talk with people who say they are interested in local news but don’t feel like they need to pay for our newspaper subscription because so much of the same information is already available online, or they hear it on the radio, or they learn about it by word of mouth.
That can be true in some cases; there’s a lot of information shared by community organizations, press releases and government entities that one can find online, and that we just review and repackage for our readers.
But often we find that other sources of “free news” are in fact using our reporting (or that of other journalists) as the basis for what they share, and that they typically do so without attribution.
For example, there are several local radio stations that seem happy to let our reporters spend the time attending a meeting, interviewing people at the meeting and writing up a story, and then recycle what we produce without giving credit. They see it on our website or in print, and then turn around and share their own “story” about our story, not mentioning the newspaper once. Sometimes they copy and paste their wording directly from our articles!
This practice — also known as plagiarism — minimizes the investment we make and the expertise we bring in covering local news, and hides it from the community. The radio station may be getting paid for their copy/paste time based on advertiser revenue, but we certainly aren’t.
The end result is the perception by the news consumer is that the information just floats into their lives from the ether, with no real effort or work involved, certainly nothing of monetary value. Local news becomes the thing you find for free online or on the radio, not a thing you have to pay for.
A neighbor passing along a news story to another neighbor is one thing, and we’re glad when people talk with each other about what they learn in the paper. Sharing one of our article links on social media may mean lots of people learn the news “for free,” but at least they can see the original source of the reporting, and have the chance to click through and subscribe if they find that useful.
When people purporting to offer community news to a mass audience take our work and pass it off as their own, it hurts everyone involved. And it means we have to spend that much more time convincing the next generation of news consumers that local journalism by local journalists is important and valuable.
For now, if someone tells me that they think the newspaper is unnecessary and that local news is basically free, I encourage them to dive a little deeper into where their information is actually coming from. It doesn’t usually take much to discover that it’s only free if you view the time it takes to do news reporting as worthless.