Michigan political junkies hunger for news about the Rep. Roy Schmidt/Speaker of the House Jase Bolger scandal. In a nutshell (which somehow seems apt), Rep. Roy Schmidt, the Democratic incumbent from Grand Rapids, apparently colluded with Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) to orchestrate his leap from the Dems to the GOP.
In addition to a discussion about the timing of the announcement, text messages between the two show they plotted to recruit a phony Dem to run against Schmidt. According to the Detroit Free Press, in a spectacular display of bad judgment, the two new political bedfellows agreed to pay 22-year-old Matt Mojzak to file to run for the office as Dem, even though Mojzak didn’t even live in the district.
There are lots of juicy details about the case that I would love to delve into. Progress Michigan reported that the Michigan State Police investigation into cellphone records shows that Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette urged Schmidt to call him on May 16. As I am writing this, The Detroit News is reporting today that State Senator Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic State Party Chair Mark Brewer are holding a press conference asking for a one-man grand jury to investigate Schmidt and Bolger for possible perjury charges.
I would love to include more links to tidbits from the Michigan Department of State Police investigation, but the Gongwer News Service, which secured the records under the Freedom of Information Act, is a private news service whose copyrighted product is shielded from my view. On Gongwer’s home page is the tantalizing headline, “Schmidt Texts Reflect Support, Scorn After Party Switch.” But when I click on the link, the Gongwer paywall prevents me from knowing more.
Gongwer’s annual subscription rate is $2,100 a year. That’s a bit cheaper than the $2,150 required for a year of news from MIRS, Michigan’s Independent Source of News and Information. But both are a far cry from the relative pittance required to get beyond the paywall at the Lansing State Journal or the New York Times. And they make you realize how wonderful it is that a site like MLive remains free.
As of this moment, Gongwer is reporting its MSP text-message story, as well as the headline: “News Update: Wednesday, August 22, 2012, 08:02 AM – Democrats To Seek One-Person Grand Jury In Schmidt Case.” The MIRS home page is currently silent about the grand jury, the same for LSJ and the Freep. Meanwhile the Detroit News and MLive posted a story about the grand jury demand two hours ago – and both are free.
The paywalls becoming popular with news organizations such as the New York Times and LSJ raise questions about the “digital divide” – the cost barrier that makes it hard for low-income people not to remain low-information folks as well. When the price difference is a few dollars a week for NYT and LSJ versus $40 a week for Gongwer and MIRS, it’s easy to see that some news is beyond most people’s budgets.
Gongwer Publisher John Lindstrom was quick to note that “news is a commodity” and “news gathering is expensive” and that the public may be the only group left that doesn’t understand that.
Specialty news, such as Gongwer and MIRS’ reporting on government hearings about arcane rule changes, can easily be worth the price. Lindstrom noted that Gongwer’s reporting on upcoming rule changes related to legislation on retrofitting elevators allowed a university to contact legislators to discuss ways to tailor the wording so the school’s aging elevators could be kept safe without costing a not-so-small fortune. “People who are interested in things like model planes or quilting are often willing to pay for news and information about their interests,” Lindstrom said.
As Rep. Todd Akin and his assertion that rape prevents pregnancy reminds us, there’s more than enough ignorance to go around these days. People need all the access they can get to facts, not drivel masquerading as “the real story.” Can general public affairs reporting remain viable in a world of privatized news?
The private newsletter business can be lucrative. Stratfor Global Intelligence offers some free reports on global issues in addition to the news and analysis that costs $349 a year to subscribe. According to The Atlantic, some customers pay as much as $40,000 for customized “intelligence” that is arguably just good (or bad) journalism. According to The Atlantic’s Max Fisher, Stratfor “is a joke.” He argues the Texas-based firm sells sizzle more than steak, persuading the gullible that they are getting the inside skinny when they are really getting little more than a Google search curated and re-written as news.
One concern that I have is that two of my brightest journalism students who might otherwise have sought careers at the Freep or the Detroit News instead went to work for MIRS. One left a job at LSJ to do so. If the best and brightest are picking private news opportunities over public ones, that worries me.
I admit my personal bias may be illogical, but I expect breaking news online to be free. However, I am willing to pay for magazine-type content, including expensive publications like Makeshift, Adbusters, The Sun and New Scientist.
I don’t have $2,000+ a year to pay for either of our state’s two political newsletters, and maybe I don’t need to know all the intrigue related to the Schmidt-Bolger scandal. But the question is whether the apparent rise in people who do not seem to know their proverbial posteriors from a hole in the ground benefit from an increasingly bifurcated news business where those who can afford them can purchase the facts, while the rest of us struggle to stay informed.