Why isn't news free?
It's a common question asked of journalists who charge for access to a printed newspaper or a digital website.
And frankly, it's a question that we too often seem slow to answer.
Our first response might be a question or series of questions:
Why isn't coffee free?
Why isn't gasoline free?
Why isn't health care free?
As the newspaper industry celebrates National Newspaper Week, Oct. 6-12, I'm reminded of the lesson of Walter Johnson, an economics professor I encountered as a journalism student at the University of Missouri. This legendary curmudgeon's mantra to his classes was: "There is no such thing as a free lunch."
His reasoning was the elements that went into making the lunch — the meat, vegetable and grains — weren't free. They cost someone something. The effort to assemble and create the lunch menu required resources as well. The gas or electricity to power the stove and lights needed to cook the meal. The wages for the person who prepared, served and cleaned up after the meal.
At the News Tribune, it costs to cover the news. There are salary expenses of reporters, editors, photographers, page designers, business office staff, press workers, carriers, etc. There are material expenses of newsprint, ink, computer server space for websites.
With 154 years as a member of this community, the News Tribune is rooted in Jefferson City, and its staff members are certainly among your friends and neighbors.
Remember professor Johnson? There is no such thing as a free lunch.
You may not have to pay anything for the lunch, but someone did pay for the lunch.
In a political season where you're going to hear candidates promoting free health care, free college tuition or free border walls, discerning voters should realize that someone is going to be picking up the tab for those services.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
For many of us, we daily make decisions to spend our money on things for which we find value. My father, an avid coffee drinker, would go thirsty before he would pay $3 for a cup of coffee. From his worldview, he's accustomed to paying 50 cents to $1 for a cup of joe. His son, on the other hand, doesn't hesitate to pay $3 to $4 for a good cup of coffee.
It's a value proposition: I see sufficient value in fresh, single source coffee to pay the difference.
So what's the value proposition for the News Tribune that warrants charging for news?
Certainly, a news consumer can get bits and pieces of national and international news from a plethora of sources today. But my hope is that the news consumer considers the source of that local news and what sort of influence he or she is exerting in the distribution of that news.
When it comes to local news, no other media in Central Missouri comes close to the depth and scope of coverage of local events or issues as the News Tribune. When a television or radio reporter attends a government meeting or community event, the resulting report, which will usually fit within 10-15 seconds of air time, will touch on some of the high points of the news event. When the News Tribune covers a news event or issue, the story will be much deeper and more valuable because it will provide the context behind the news, the background of what happened previously and multiple voices of those affected or participating.
The value proposition is that the News Tribune is better able to provide the context and background that will help you better understand an issue and make informed decisions.
Community journalism is a bedrock of our democracy; its existence is vital to the growth and health of a community. To borrow from a popular slogan today, we really are "Stronger Together" if we are informed and engaged as community members.
To that end, we promote our stories on social media so that we can engage a wider audience to the topics we cover in the News Tribune. For those who aren't subscribers or who have already read their three free stories for the month, they often ask why we even post the stories to social media.
The social media posts serve two functions: to highlight for our readers stories they may have missed in that day's edition and to share with non-subscribers issues or events that are going on and encouraging them to consider the value of what they would gain with a News Tribune subscription.
Today, I thank you, as a subscriber, for recognizing the value of the great work these journalists are doing daily at the News Tribune. If you're not a subscriber or if you have a friend or neighbor who doesn't read the News Tribune, I would encourage you to share our stories with them and encourage them to invest in journalism and our community.
Gary Castor, who did pass professor Walter Johnson's Econ 51 class with a solid B, is the managing editor of the Jefferson City News Tribune. If you wish to subscribe to the News Tribune, visit newstribune.com/subscribe.