Folks, I'm disappointed.
I'm disappointed that there are still people out there who are shocked and sometimes offended when asked to pay for their local news. Hopefully that sentiment is the exception rather than the rule in our community – in fact we've seen an increase in subscriptions, and we've actually received a handful of donations, so thank you — but somehow the problem persists. There are folks who not only seem to believe the hard work of the local newsroom should go unrewarded but that the same quality of work can just as easily be found elsewhere at no cost.
Avid opinion page readers will recall a column I wrote back in August titled "Little, red writing good and the case of the far-flung photo." The problem I highlighted then is the same problem I'm highlighting now — we, like the little, red hen of storybook fame, do a good deal of work, and it's not acceptable to just take a slice of the bread without contributing to the effort.
The May 20 edition of the Dickinson County News featured a piece on a settlement regarding a major collision. It's a story that's been developing for a few months now, and a lot of people were understandably curious about the outcome.
Me too. That's why I put in the work to properly cover it.
Stop me if you've heard this story. I noticed the same driver was involved in two major collisions that year — I harvested the grain. I looked up the court documents — I threshed the wheat. I noticed when a civil charge was filed by the victim — I ground the flour. I checked the records regularly to see if anything changed — I rolled the dough. I called the attorneys when the settlement came through, and I wrote all the stories along the way — I baked the bread. Of course, subscribers had no trouble getting a slice – they didn't turn down little, red writing good's offer to share the bread if they helped out. But a few should-be readers sat aghast at their keyboards when the website asked them to log in as subscribers if they wanted to know the details rather than just smell the aroma of quality journalism.
The paper was called a scam by one user (and let's just take a second to note that this publication — in all its various names and mastheads — has been a part of this community since before Abbie Gardner came back to Arnolds Park, repurchased her family's pioneer claim and started her museum). Another said they prefer to get their news from a different local website for free.
Now, I want to play nice, so I'll just say it this way — I've been watching the places folks say they'll look, and coverage of equal or greater value on this particular topic can't be found for free.
But, I'll admit, there's room for confusion these days with the whole pandemic as it is. Since the state's first case, we made a company-wide decision to make all coronavirus-related information available online to everyone, regardless of whether they financially support us with a subscription or not. That is to say, the little, red hen is giving away her pumpernickel because she knows her friends are hungry. We made this decision because we knew people would need — not want, but need — accurate, available information during this pandemic. When it came to our pumpernickel COVID coverage, our family of papers decided to serve the community by giving more for a bit than we necessarily got in return.
COVID-19 caused a lot of state-ordered closures, and a lot of people were worried local businesses would go under for good if no one supported them. This newspaper relies on you to support it just like the hardware stores, restaurants and boutiques, so I would hope the same loyalty would extend to us when we've been trying hard to keep you informed of the situation all along.
Health updates from the governor's office — free. Changes in local confirmed cases — free. Summer event cancellations — free. And that's not even mentioning the feel-good features we've done about people helping their community in this time of need — also free. Personally, I've doubled the number of articles I was writing before the COVID-19 pandemic – literally doubled. And these stories are more than simply regurgitating a press release onto a page (you can thank my high school English teacher for that imagery), because that's not journalism. If that's all we did, we'd be taking jobs away from dozens of hard-working bulletin boards just trying provide for their families. No, these were byline stories, with additional details written by real people with real faces, real families and real bills to pay.
What sets this paper apart from those hard-working bulletin boards is our drive to ask questions, to interview people and get answers, and to craft all that information into a story the average person can digest in one sitting. But, from time to time, some no-doubt earnest folks use any number of reasons to justify why they should be allowed to grab as many crescent rolls as they like without paying. People have said they don't want to pay because they don't live in the area – they just want to read one particular article that caught their interest. Some have even claimed that, if the paper is using social media to direct readers to their product, the article should be free — which is why, of course, every craft and trade show your mother-in-law helps promote on Facebook is riddled with booths full of free lotions, jewelry and kitchen gadgets.
Like I said, I understand we've muddied the waters of supply and demand lately by giving our community free access when it keeps them safe and healthy. But we've done that voluntarily because we care about you.
We'd like to think you care enough about us that $4 a month wouldn't seem too steep a price to pay to read as many articles as you like and keep this 150-year institution going.