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You still need journalists

I’m not oblivious to what’s happening with journalism. 

I can accept that the traditional newspaper format isn’t as popular as it used to be, and I can accept that the Internet plays a big role in the future of journalism.

I cannot accept, however, that journalism must be reduced to the 140 characters of a tweet. Or that we should use Facebook posts as legitimate “sources” of news.

Social media certainly plays a role in journalism. Otherwise The Times wouldn’t have its own Facebook and Twitter accounts. But if you’re only getting news from your feeds, then you’re missing out.

Ever since The Times launched it’s full news website in 2008, we have used a paywall system, meaning only subscribers can access complete stories and content. Certainly, anyone can read the headlines, but we’ve always valued our product and don’t want to give it away for free.

Last month, after reading what seemed like the thousandth complaint on our Facebook page asking for free content, I got on my soap box. I posted the following on the Bryan Times page, and my personal page: 

“If we gave away all of our content for free (online) we would not be a profitable business, and then there wouldn’t be any news to share. We try to give our Facebook fans pieces of what’s in the paper so they know what to look for in that day’s edition — in print and online. Home delivery subscribers can read the full paper online for free, so they can check the news at home or work before it even hits their doorstep. We also publish breaking news outside of our paywall to alert all interested readers of big events.

“Many media outlets are realizing now that the free news system doesn’t work and are switching to a paywall system like ours. It may be an inconvenience to you, but selling our product pays our bills, which in turns pays our employees who all live and work in the area. Thank you to those who can understand and support us for that.”

Then last week I was even more frustrated by what I saw online. A local agency sent The Times a press release, which prompted an interview and a complete story for the front page of the paper.
It wasn’t breaking news, just interesting, so I did not send out a web post before we went to print. Just as we were finishing for the evening, sending the pages to press, the agency which sent the release posted about the event on its own Facebook page, which I happen to “Like.” 

The post was the bare basics of the news, but still informative, which is good. I’m glad they share their news online. It was the comments below that frustrated me. Users essentially implied that the paper was late to the game because we hadn’t instantly posted the story. And that the paper didn’t matter any more because people could just get their news from Facebook. So why even bother with The Times? 

Why? Oh, I’ll tell you why.

Because without journalists, you will never get real news!

Sure, anyone can post about events online and share information quickly. It’s great, and it’s what makes social media popular. But what are you getting by relying solely on that content? 

You’re only getting what they want you to know, what they want to share.

You’re not getting details that could impact your life directly. And you’re not getting information from other sources that may change the way you view the message.

Think about the news you see in the paper. A lot of what we report is public information. Without journalism, however, the information doesn’t carry the same value.

For example, the minutes and agendas of many public meetings are available as public record and anyone can obtain them with little effort.

But will reading a budget resolution tell you why a council chose to cut funding for its utilities department?  And will reading a school board agenda tell you why they are letting go of three teachers? 

The answer is no. That’s why we have journalists. They find out. They tell you why. And they take the time to make sure you have a complete and accurate account of the news.

My same argument applies to social media. You can rely on the friends in your news feed to give you the news, but you’ll never get the full story without journalists.

Did your friends go to last night’s school board meeting? Have they been to a hearing in the commissioners office? Did they interview each candidate for office before the election or did they just share a funny picture they found in their own news feed?

Based on the low public participation I see at open government events — which have a direct and immediate impact on all local residents — I’m gonna say no, you can’t rely on social media.

And, let’s not forget, with the rising use of “promoted content” on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes you still won’t see the information that is important to you. You’ll see what companies are paying to tell you. That’s called advertising. That’s not the news.

So, going back to my previous rant... Who would you rather get your news from? Someone who is advertising for their own interests? Or someone who has the public interest at heart and needs to charge a fee for the valuable information they offer?

I choose the latter.

My final rant for this column is for those of you who argue that you can get free news from a TV station’s website. It’s true, sometimes we get crews in our area from Fort Wayne or Toledo. Please understand, however, that their much larger audience and web traffic make it more cost-effective to give away news stories online. And their large coverage area is also a drawback.

They have so much territory that it’s not often they come out our way to cover a news story. I would guess it’s once a month, at best. Are you really staying informed by only getting news once a month? And from someone who doesn’t live or work where you do? 

Again, I say no.

So yes, the Internet may be the future of journalism. But free content, from sources you may or may not be able to rely on consistently, is not the future I chose as a journalist.

Tami Brigle is editor of The Bryan Times. She may be reached at 419-636-1111 or tami@bryantimes.com.

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