Writers Guild: Internet users will pay for quality news


In comments to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on how journalism will survive in the digital age, the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) laments the fact that many of its members have been laid off as news organizations deal with falling revenues. But the union says ultimately quality will prevail, and Internet users will be willing to pay for quality news content.

WGAE worries, though, that while the economic model for news delivery on the Internet is being worked out, there is a risk of allowing the existing newsgathering system to fail. It urges government to boost funding for public broadcasting, which it describes as having been “systematically underfunded” for years. If not, then some other way needs to be found to ensure that newsgathering systems don’t collapse for want of short-term funding.

The union recognizes the role of bloggers, which it calls “citizen journalists,” but it says that pros are needed to do the heavy lifting. Having trained professionals gathering, researching, writing, editing and photographing costs money, of course, and the union worries that the rise of the Internet as a primary news source for many people, with demands that everything be free, has “undermined reliability and quality.”

Here’s the summary from the end of the WGAE’s comments to the FTC:

“It is our view that quality will ultimately prevail. There will continue to be a sizeable paying market for well-researched, well-presented news and public affairs material. For now, consumers are generally able to access that material over the Internet for free. This cannot last long. Although the equipment is cheaper than ever, people cannot be expected to work for free; they must be able to make a living, to build careers producing reliable, informative content. Although ‘citizen journalists’ contribute a great deal to the flow of information, they are not a substitute for trained, experienced content creators who know how to investigate, interview, write, edit, photograph, and speak on-air.

We think that people will choose to pay for quality news if the alternative is unreliable and undifferentiated babble. Most content is now free so the market does not require people to make that choice. It would be bad public policy to allow the current newsgathering system to fail in the interim. It would be very difficult to rebuild the industry from scratch; professional journalism might not make it through the transition period.

There is a different, workable model for presenting carefully-investigated, thoughtful news and public affairs programming – public broadcasting (or ‘public media’ in the digital age). Unfortunately, public television and public radio have been systematically underfunded for many years, so a very large infusion of capital would be required to make this a viable alternative to the existing large newsgathering companies.

If policymakers do not choose to commit the required amounts to public broadcasting, they must do something else to protect the news business during this transition period, while the public decides how much quality programming is worth.”