What is news information worth?

Journalism should be transparent about the costs that go into news production

News is worth much more than the paper it is printed on. But to the average reader, there is no way to ascertain the value of journalism as a product. What exactly is the value of this kind of information and how much cost (and risk) is involved in its produce production?

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Consumers might judge the quality of the writing; or the depth of the analysis; perhaps the number of names in the byline or how many days journalists spent investigating the story. Other audiences might assign value based on the benefits they derive from the information in the story, for instance in product reviews, financial or health news, i.e. service journalism.

But the vast majority of news consumers lack visibility into the millions of dollars that goes into running a major news operation. And that should NOT be their responsibility! Consumers are inclined to consider a cost and benefit analysis of the products and services we buy.

For instance if I eat dinner in a four star restaurant, I can see the raw ingredients, add the cost of rent and decor, and salary of the staff to justify paying a premium for the meal. When I purchase a car, I see all the metal, engine, doors, wheels, interior, dashboard electronics, and other parts.

One particular story format for consumer electronic products is the product teardown. As soon as a new iPhone is available, a hobbyist or tech journalist disassembles every component. They look up the prices for each component and add them all up to get the cost for Apple to produce the phone. This allows them to calculate the difference between the price and the cost, which is Apple’s profit margin. Apple collects this price markup for their ingenious design and savvy marketing.

I wish that journalist would get into the habit of documenting “teardowns” for the stories they produce. Otherwise, their audience can’t figure why they need to open their wallets to support investigative journalism.

In audiences’ minds, the intangible nature of news as an information product raises questions such as:

  • Where does the money go now that there is no paper to print and deliver?

  • How much can it cost to pay a few reporters to write news stories?

  • What makes a particular publication’s journalism indispensable to my community?

  • As news information somehow automatically get into my newsfeeds, what difference would it make whether or not I pay the new organizations?

We in the news industry should genuinely reflects on these questions and strive to craft compelling explanations as to how budgets are set and resources are allocated by publishers and editors to cover civic issues and produce stories that are worth our communities’s support.