Want high-quality journalism? Try paying for it.

[This post was written by 3Points Principal Drew Mauck]

One of the many byproducts of last year’s contentious presidential election was the rise of “fake news,” and with it came new concerns about truth in reporting and the influence fake news can have on people’s psyches. The American public has become more skeptical of stories they see in the news and in social media feeds, and with good reason, as we’ve seen plenty of mainstream news stories exposed as at best containing key inaccuracies, and at worst being completely fabricated.

It has gotten to the point where tech leaders are spending tens of millions of dollars to combat the issue, and Facebook and Google are rolling out new features to prevent the propagation of fake news on their platforms. Perhaps that’s not surprising, after a comprehensive Stanford University study found over 150 election-related fake news stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 38 million times.

How did we get here? That’s a simple question with a very complicated answer. But as someone who has worked in media relations for most of his adult career, I am confident in one factor that has led to the rampant increase in fake news: many people simply do not pay for their news anymore.

In other words: you get what you pay for. Or, in this case, what you don’t pay for. So many of us are used to the Internet’s ad-supported model for free content, but there are major drawbacks to this setup. The less money that news publications make, the less they can spend on their product (e.g., paying staff), which tends to lower the quality of their journalistic output.

Why don’t we want to pay for journalism? In short, we think we can get the same or comparable quality for free. The Internet, and the myriad sites and social media platforms that inhabit it, have conditioned us to think that we can get almost anything for free (or at least for cheaper than previously possible). Amazon, Uber, and companies with similar business models have provided competition to retail’s old guard, teaching us to focus less on the quality of what we consume. However, what we have not anticipated is the magnitude of harm that lower-quality journalism can cause, a harm that is far greater on a large scale than lower-quality cab rides.

This is an important distinction to make: journalism is different from news. Anyone can break news these days — hello, Twitter! But simply throwing a story out into the public domain is not journalism. Journalism requires fact checking, on-record sources, editors, perspectives, and healthy skepticism, amongst other things. Good journalism provides information and insight to the public, especially on topics that people and companies are not eager to discuss, and does so in an accurate and trustworthy fashion.

Of course, not all journalism is good journalism, and media companies exploring topics in an unbalanced way can turn people off. Yet good journalism — which involves a level of rigor and process that putting out “news” simply doesn’t require — still exists.

It’s also important to note that journalism can and does work on free sites. For example, we think Chicago Inno is doing fantastic work covering Chicago’s tech ecosystem. But free sites can be hit-or-miss. In our experience, the fee-based subscription model tends to produce consistently high-quality journalism.

And the public recognizes this. Because we still read paid news — we just find ways to do so without actually paying for it.

All those times readers Google a headline and “backdoor” into the content. Those times would-be customers ask a paying subscriber, “can you please pull this article down and send it to me?” All those times people just use someone else’s login information. They all add up and hurt those in media that are doing a public service by reporting, exploring, and analyzing situations that may not be easy to discuss.

I’m not here to lecture or prescribe the rules you need to follow. I just want to make it clear that there are consequences to our resistance to paying for journalism. While we at 3Points have had plenty of debates and respectful disagreements with members of the media in the course of our work, we nevertheless applaud their commitment to gathering more information and contributing to a better-informed society.

We can even see those positive traits among amateur journalists — look at the investigative work that these high schoolers did. My estimation is that they did this for the pursuit of truth and for experience, but as opportunities to make a decent living in journalism continue to decline, talented youngsters like these will seek other career paths.

What downstream effects will a poorly-supported journalism industry have on companies’ transparency and accountability to the public?

In my opinion, we are already seeing those effects. Good journalism is good for society, moreso than ever in this era of “fake news” — we are only hurting ourselves as we pass around copyrighted content, as that ultimately leads to the decline of an industry that checks and balances corporations, governments, and individuals that operate with their own biased agendas.

If you’ve read this far, I think you get our point of view, and thus here are a few publications that we subscribe to, and which we highly recommend, in our city and our industries. Many of these are reasonably priced, and many will offer corporate packages for companies.

What publications do you read regularly? Am I being too harsh? I’d love to get your comments below.