cash register

Photo (cc) 2010 by David Trawin

Roy Wood Jr. is wrong, and so are the journalists who are nodding their heads in agreement with him. Wood’s lament, expressed at the White House Correspondents Dinner over the weekend, was that quality news is increasingly inaccessible to those who either won’t or can’t pay for it, whereas propaganda, lies and conspiracy theories are all available for free.

“The issue with good media is that most people can’t afford that,” the comedian said during his monologue. “All the essential, fair, and nuanced reporting is stuck behind a paywall. People can’t afford rent. People can’t afford food. They can’t afford an education. They damn sure can’t afford to pay for the truth.”

Offering an approving “amen” is Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, who wrote:

Wood was getting at one of the most consequential questions facing the news: how to pay for it at a time of severe economic insecurity and amid a business-model collapse in how journalism is funded. A tiered system has emerged, with high-quality news outlets like [The New York] Times and The Washington Post that depend on  subscriptions for support sitting atop a heap of free news providers fueled by social media.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s not even remotely true. There has never been more free, high-quality news available than there is today, and you don’t have to look very far to find it. Wood and Pope are referring specifically to paywalls, so I’ll assume that they regard non-paywalled news sites as “free,” notwithstanding the cost of digital devices and an internet connection. With that assumption as a baseline, let’s think this through, shall we?

I’ll begin by saying that I pay for a lot of news, with subscriptions to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Talking Points Memo. I have access to The Wall Street Journal through my university, and I also donate to a number of news outlets, mostly local, in order to support projects that Ellen Clegg and I are writing about in our book-in-progress, “What Works in Community News.” But that doesn’t mean that paid subscriptions are the only route to being well-informed.

So let’s take a look at how people who insist on free might go about informing themselves. I’m going to stick with major U.S.-based news outlets that cover a full range of topics and that are not explicitly skewed toward one political point of view.

I’ll start with national and international news. NPR is one of our great news organizations. Despite some recent cutbacks, its on-air signal, website, newsletters and podcasts comprise a source of reliable news and information that is almost as comprehensive as the Times’. PBS doesn’t offer nearly as much news as NPR, but the “NewsHour” is excellent, if a little slow, and its “Frontline” documentaries are outstanding. And let’s not forget The Associated Press, whose world-class coverage is available to the public for free as well as to news organizations for a fee.

The options in the Boston area are many as well. No, there is nothing as comprehensive as the Globe, but that’s not the same as saying there’s nothing. Excellent free sources of regional coverage include WBUR, GBH News and CommonWealth Magazine. There’s the indispensable Universal Hub, which provides a combination of aggregation (some of it from unlikely sources) and original reporting. Our local television newscasts offer quality coverage, too. And let’s be honest: If the Globe breaks a big story, other outlets are going to summarize it.

Coverage thins out at the local level, because in many cases there simply aren’t any options, either paid or free. A number of communities in the suburbs and beyond are now covered by very good nonprofit news organizations, and nearly all of those are free. A few legacy newspapers are still published, but you have to pay for those. At the moment, it depends on where you live.

Now, a caveat: Nearly every news organization I’ve mentioned subsists on revenue from a variety of sources, including readers, listeners and viewers like you. So yes, they’re free if you choose not to pay, or if you can’t. But if you can, you should support the news that you consume.

Still, the notion that everyone who can’t afford a subscription to The New York Times is doomed to a steady diet of Fox News and Alex Jones is just silly. The Wild West days of the internet, when everything was free, are long gone, but that doesn’t mean there still aren’t plenty of high-quality free options. If people choose to gorge on garbage, well, I’m sorry, but that’s a choice they’ve made.