Supporting the Fourth Estate

I recently renewed my subscription to The Guardian. Given our expectation that news on the internet should be free, the $69 fee seems excessive. On the other hand, if you compare it to the role that an effective fourth estate fills in a democracy, the subscription rate is a bargain.

If news content on the internet is available for free, why did I decide to pay for it?

The fourth estate

In American politics, the first three estates are the three branches of government – legislative, judiciary, and executive. The media has been called the fourth estate to describe its traditional, influential role as the people’s watchdog. In other words, the media’s responsibility is to represent the public, give us a voice, and to report, investigate, and provide a set of checks and balances to those in power. Their job was, and still is, to investigate and report inconsistencies and abuses of power through researched, well documented news stories.

The internet and the fourth estate

The perception of the fourth estate, the media, has changed dramatically over my lifetime. During my youth in the latter parts of the 20th century, the fourth estate effectively served its role providing checks and balances on the government and corporate interests. However, as the internet grew during the turn of the century, it rapidly eroded the media’s traditional business model and initiated a rapid and steady decline of the media’s influence. Today’s media is dominated by click-bait, fake news, and stories meant to generate page views and entertain the public rather than well-researched, investigative journalism that functions to keep the public alert and informed.

While some may see the decline of media influence as a good thing, I disagree. The media plays a vital role in our society. Their responsibility to report the facts and keep the public informed provides necessary checks and balances on the abuses of power in both the government and corporate domains. To have a well functioning democracy and ethical capitalistic economy, it is important to have an independent, reputable fourth estate.

Supporting the fourth estate

If we want to have an effective fourth estate, it is up to us, the public, to support the media outlets and journalists necessary to investigate and report the news. By providing our support to the media, we can reverse the effects that the internet has had on the mainstream media. We can turn the media from light beer style articles that entertain and taste good but lack filling and substance to substantive investigative journalism. Having a more effective, independent media gives the public more effective representation in government. It leads to a louder and more effective voice to stand up to corporate interests. It holds those in power to a greater level of accountability. Supporting true journalism drowns out the noise created by the outlets that are more interested in chasing views rather than reporting facts.

Here are ways that you can jump in and support the fourth estate

  • Recognize that real journalism cannot be provided for free. Professional journalists are just that, professionals. They have to eat, too. In order to practice their craft, they need to be supported. Since the internet has eroded the traditional advertising and classified models that paid journalists in the past, we need to be willing to pay our fair share in subscription fees that allow journalists to do their work.
  • Pick a source that speaks to you – one that you feel is putting in the time, resources, and effort to create stories of substance. I’ve chosen The Guardian, but there are many other sources as well. You may want to consider The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Financial Times. If none of these are your cup of tea, I’m sure you’ll be able to find a suitable media outlet to support by doing a small amount of research.
  • In addition to a large, national or international media outlet, consider supporting your local, independent news organization. Keeping up with events on a global level is all well and good, but you should also be engaged in your local community. Having a strong, independent source of local news is a great way to stay plugged in and informed. You want your local news to maintain its integrity and not become a gossip rag that is purely interested in generating page views to create the revenue necessary to stay afloat.
  • Turn off “the noise.” Don’t reward those organizations that are creating sensationalized, fake news stories. Your attention is even more valuable that your money these days. Save it for those organizations that are intent on upholding their responsibility to hold our leaders accountable and deliver value. Select what you read on the internet carefully and spend your attention wisely. Don’t waste it.

What’s good for the hive is good for the bee

The media is a powerful force for accountability. As a concerned public, we should support it. We need it to be an independent entity. I get that we may expect or want the news to be free, but that’s not realistic. Someone has to pay the professional journalists to do the research and write the stories. As responsible citizens we all need to support their efforts. If each us do what is right for the collective good, then we all benefit. It’s a small investment that will pay dividends well into the future and beyond.

To put it in perspective, most news organizations, including those I’ve listed above as well as local outlets, offer subscription levels well under $100/yr. if you do the math, you’ll find that it’s much less than most of us spend in a couple of months at Starbucks, or what we spend going out to eat in a week. Forgoing a couple of overpriced lattes or making our own lunch a couple of times a month could go a long way to improving our democracy, for everyone.