Time to pay for good journalism

Nicholas Chan

Members of the media waiting outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court, where former prime minister Najib Razak was charged with corruption on Wednesday. We should be worried if someone else is paying for our news, because chances are, what you will get is bad journalism replacing the good kind. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Najjua Zulkefli, July 8, 2018.

ONE can’t help but spot the irony. That this column article appealing to people to pay for (credible) news cannot be read unless one has already paid to read this news portal.

Never mind. Let’s get two things clear first. First, this is not a paid endorsement. Second, when I refer to the news, it does not have to be The Malaysian Insight, which I have just subscribed to.

Putting all that aside, I genuinely believe there is a case for paid journalism. Something I hope Malaysians can consider, as more money is donated to Tabung Harapan, whose collection now stands at RM130 million (an up-and-running, self-sustaining Malaysian news portal, I was told, costs only RM3 million to RM4 million a year).

The importance of a credible, independent fourth estate cannot be overstated. Even the great German sociologist, Max Weber, wrote that the “responsibility of every honourable journalist” is not lower than that of the scholar, but “higher”, a remarkable statement given that most intellectuals tend to celebrate only their own importance.

Yet oddly, as Weber himself observed, the journalist is often deemed to be of a “pariah caste”, viewed by “society” as “its ethically lowest representative”. Not surprising, when I recall how friends, especially those working in the Chinese press, lamented how meagre they were paid relative to the hours demanded of them.

The oddity of journalism does not end there. Not only is it a profession that is most needed, yet poorly rewarded (as compared to doctors and lawyers, which are basically staircases to stature and wealth), but unlike electricity or clean water, the supply of news will not stop just because people stop paying for it.

In fact, in the digital age, the news can maintain a perfectly free existence as it only takes a laptop to produce “news”. But, at what cost?

The news is seldom news for its own sake. It can be made to play many ancillary roles to serve a variety of interests, which is also why the most agenda-driven of news outlets (if one can call them that) are not known for their paywalls. Revenue is not their target, nor the biggest of their worries, unlike the more authoritative sources.

Hence, we should be worried if someone else is paying for our news. Because chances are, what you will get is bad, if not downright disingenuous, journalism replacing the good kind. Misinformation masquerading as information.

To pay for good journalism is not just to make sure competent, honest and professional journalists get to keep their jobs, but it is also to preserve the vocation in its simplest, yet most urgent, calling: to provide an independent, in-depth and accurate coverage of events happening in our and other parts of the world.

The stakes cannot be higher now, given the ease with which we can access, spread, and most frighteningly, doctor believable fake news through the wizardry of technology. Independent and competent journalism is needed to not only produce facts, but also to fact-check.

But, none of this can be done for free. For example, days ago, I was listening to this podcast on the train, about how a New York Times journalist discredited the story of a suspected Islamic State member she had encountered in a prison in Iraq who claimed that he bought a Yazidi sex slave just to save her from harm, and never touched her.

Speaking in earnest tones while swearing in the name of God, many would be tempted to believe him, more so, when allegations of torture and the lack of due process surfaced when thousands of suspected IS members were rounded up after the fall of Mosul.

Yet, the journalist took the extra step to track down the Yazidi girl to verify his account, and it turned out that he had not only raped her, but also ransomed her father for money.

None of this, from travelling to war zones to establishing deep contacts, can be done for free (of time, risk and money). Nor should they be. If journalists “pay” for our news with their time and labour (and sometimes, freedom and lives), we should at least be able to pay for it with our own money.

At this point, some would argue that if the media was such an important public good, we should have paid for it using state coffers, just like how we maintain the police. But the problem is, assuming the state will not threaten the free media (as it always does), which media outlet should the money go to, then? All media outlets? That’s impossible. One genuinely good media source? I am not sure that everyone can agree on which, not to mention, it is not safe to leave such matters in the hands of the all-powerful state.

So, it’s better that we choose ourselves and give material support to the news sources we trust. To be sure, I am not saying any media outlet can be completely impartial and ideology-free. There will inevitably be slants and skews. However, there’s a qualitative difference between this and this. To argue otherwise is making false equivalences.

The thing is, if we don’t ascribe any value to good journalism by not contributing to its sustenance, we may risk propagating the same false equivalences unknowingly. In other words, we are essentially saying every content out there is of the same value.

All things said and done, to pay for the news is nothing revolutionary at all. Many of us grew up paying for the newspaper to be delivered to our doorsteps anyway.

The odd thing is that, as news is delivered to us 24/7 now on our screens, somehow, we have internalised the idea that the news can be free, even as we continue to fork out extra bucks to make sure the food we consume is of high quality and safety standards. – July 8, 2018.

* A Forensic Science-Asian Studies hybrid, Nicholas Chan is interested in how authority is shaped, exercised, and more importantly, resisted in Southeast Asia.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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  • Yes, fully agree. Good quality news come with a price.

    Posted 5 years ago by Ang Peng Wong · Reply

  • Many of you grew up paying for a newspaper? Well Ive never paid a single cent for information and I continue to do so. Despite all that was said and written. There are many news outlet providing good journalism which are free. Like I said, Ive never had to pay for information ever in my life. You put up subscriptions, you lose gen-y, we dont pay for information, we are used to it.

    Posted 5 years ago by Bruno 85 · Reply

    • Who is paying for the free news you read and what is their agenda?

      Posted 5 years ago by Anak Kampung · Reply

  • Ya, must sokong quality journalism. Otherwise we will only get Umno mouthpiece like Hudusan Malaysia. We need diversity of news and information but nothing in this world is free. It does not cost much to pay quality journalism.

    Posted 5 years ago by Da Hi · Reply