Sushruta's Blog

A Free Press Cannot Be Free

News should be free. Right to Information1, after all, is a fundamental human right, and news is information. The latest and important information, anyway. Information should not be the monopoly of the rich alone. Today, thanks to Google, Facebook and Twitter, news is finally free.2

But in between digging out truths and fighting the status quo, journalists have to eat too. Somebody will need to pay for that food. The eternal question, though, is who? Who shall pay these pesky journalists, for working round the clock, risking lives and limbs3 for public service? No one thanks them for their service to the nation -- media is the fourth pillar of democracy, after all -- so the least that can be afforded is a decent wage.

How do the media houses pay their journalists if the readers, their primary consumers, don't pay? Paywalls clearly don't work.4 So, media houses are being forced to rely on other channels for income. Advertising is the main source of income for almost every media house.5 A large part of that comes from the government.6

This is not a free press. has a nice definition of free press:

a body of book publishers, news media, etc., not controlled or restricted by government censorship in political or ideological matters.

Not controlled by the government is my key takeaway. A free press is not controlled by anybody but its readers. Yet, when someone provides for almost three-fourths of your income, à la the advertisers, they do control you. If the advertiser is the government, then the press is (de facto) government-controlled too.

The result? News integrity and readers' interests go out the window. The only interests that need to be protected are those of the cash cows -- the advertisers.

Bring in more traffic. Push those clickbait-y nonsense. Stop rocking the status quo. Don't publish that piece. Fire that rebel reporter. Miss any of those steps, and the money stops flowing in. Time to shut up shop.

These are the real life consequences of not paying for the news. A free press is anathema to free news. The choice has to be made between the two -- it's one or the other.

This is a tough question with so many facets -- the whys and the hows and the whos -- but for the hope of a truly free press, I hope that an answer comes soon.

P.S.: I just learned how to put footnotes in Markdown, and I think I went a bit overboard in this post.7

  1. This is in the Indian context. You should check the related rights in your country.

  2. Free as in beer.

  3. Recently, Danish Siddiqui, India's finest photojournalist and a Pulitzer winner, perished while reporting in Afghanistan.

  4. NeimanLab calls this the subscription-pocalypse.

  5. PewResearch says that 69% of American domestic news revenue comes from advertising.

  6. In 2020, the Indian government spent almost $100 million on advertising.

  7. Please excuse this behaviour. I am sure it's just a phase.