Monday, April 9, 2018

Paying for journalism -- and refusing to pay -- and why

I am obviously in favor of writers getting paid for their work.

What writer would be, could be, against that?

But, when it comes to newspapers, I have a problem.

For 30 years I was a loyal subscriber to the Chicago Tribune. I could pick it up off the front porch and read it on the train going to work. Sometimes I had more to read going home.

But, one day, some years back, when finances were unusually tight at home, even for me, I got mad. I stopped paying for my subscription.

I'd just received a bill for my annual renewal. The Tribune wanted $400 I didn't have. (If that's not the actual amount, it's close -- whatever it was, I didn't have it.)

Now anyone who is not a billionaire knows that sometimes, even when one doesn't have the funds, if the object is of sufficient import, priorities will be arranged to find a way to pay. As I was scheming about how I'd come up with the scratch for Mother Tribune.

But then one day my wife came home from school (she's the Spanish teacher at the parish grade school) and told me what her colleague had done to resolve her big renewal bill from the Tribune. Catholic grade school teachers can teach 40 years and never make what a rookie CPS teacher does. So, as pressing a problem as 400 smackers was for me, it was an even greater problem for my wife's colleague. And my wife's colleague did something about it, too. As my wife recounted the story, her friend called the Tribune subscription office and complained about the price -- and, lo and behold, she got it knocked down by more than half.

In hindsight, I've come to realize that my wife was telling me the story so that I, too, might call and complain and knock down the price. But, at that moment, I could only see red. This is how the Tribune treats loyal customers? I'd paid cheerfully and without complaint for all these years, despite the real sacrifice that the subscription cost required, when all I really had to do was beef loud enough and get the price knocked down by more than half? How much money had I wasted over the years?

If the price of a subscription is something that can be bargained for, like a piece of cloth in the bazaar, what was its real value? How could I know that I was not getting swindled at $200? At $150?

So I refused to pay the bill and I refused to call and barter.

I made do for awhile, picking up the Incredibly Shrinking Sun-Times at the L station in the morning -- by this time, the Tribune had stopped, or was just about to stop, selling on the street -- but, eventually, even the Sun-Times stopped selling through street vendors. Over time, I've gotten news increasingly from online sources -- the Tribune included -- but the erection of pay walls and monthly article limits has made this an increasingly difficult challenge. Instead of reading a newspaper -- the product of an industry that I am highly motivated to support -- I am ruining my eyesight reading Twitter posts on my phone.

The Tribune is desperately marketing its online product -- but still with fluid pricing. Why the heck should an 'introductory' subscriber get one price, while a returning customer must pay more -- and perhaps considerably more?

Another paper that allegedly covets my online subscription -- the Washington Post (the illustration here is from a recent email I received) -- apparently uses the same seemingly random pricing method.

And I am resisting. Why is it OK for me to pay $80 if the next guy has to pay $100 for the exact same product?

I sometimes fantasize about trying to make a living off my own writing. And I know I'd have to find a way to get paid in that case. As I said at the outset, I'm entirely in favor of writers getting paid for their work. Meanwhile, newspapers, with their subscription by negotiation policies, are vanishing like the dodo. I wonder if, in the years to come, when historians ponder the decline and fall of the newspaper industry, they will agree that arbitrary pricing was a factor in the industry's extinction.