Last week brought the distressing news of massive lay-offs at The Guardian, which is possibly the best news organization in the world right now. Management announced with apparently sincere regret that The Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer, will cut 100 editorial jobs, plus another 150 support jobs—mainly, it’s hoped, through retirement and other semi-voluntary measures. Considering that the total editorial staff at the two papers numbers 750, this means that roughly one out of every seven editorial employees will go, mostly from the London office. These and other cost-cutting moves are compelled by “the volatile media environment” facing news organizations today, announced Katharine Viner, The Guardian’s editor-in-chief.
Disclosure: I consider the people in danger of losing their jobs at The Guardian my colleagues, and this financial belt-tightening will also affect what I and other freelance contributors get paid. But these facts should not disqualify me from issuing a “tough love” plea to everyone reading this and all the organizations, communities, and networks you are part of: Please don’t be a free rider—help pay for the journalism you read, watch, or otherwise consume.
I say that The Guardian is the best news organization in the world at the moment not just because of its exemplary environmental news coverage, or its smart combination of deep reporting and spot news coverage, or its recently expanded focus on US news. What’s especially valuable is The Guardian’s long history of standing up to power and privilege in a way that most US news organizations no longer do.
It’s no accident that Edward Snowden went public with his expose of warrantless surveillance in The Guardian, rather than, say, The New York Times. Snowden explained that he didn’t trust the Times after the paper’s editors acceded to the George W. Bush administration’s demand in 2004 not to publish an article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that began to reveal the administration’s surveillance activities. Only a year later—after Bush was re-elected—did the Times publish their reporters’ story. “Hiding that story changed history,” Snowden exclaimed.
The Guardian’s financial troubles are emblematic of a broader trend that demands attention. Everyone who believes that an informed public is essential to democratic governance should be concerned about the fate of not only The Guardian but serious news outlets in general. If these outlets can’t stay in business, where will people turn to get the information, analysis, and debate needed to form one’s opinion, cast one’s vote, and otherwise perform one’s duty as a citizen?
There is no single reason for the economic troubles challenging serious news operations these days, but surely a major factor is that most people—even people who should know better—assume that they no longer have to pay for journalism. Journalism is now considered to be a free good, especially when it appears online.
Well, guess what? Real journalism—the kind that does original, even investigative, reporting of actual events out in the world and that seeks to hold politicians, corporations, and other powerful interests accountable—costs real money, even when it’s published online.