By Joe Coffey | The Fifth Estate

True or False: People who can afford reliable journalism get reliable journalism, while everyone else is stuck with sketchy news-ish looking stuff that can’t be trusted.

Answer: False

News from KCRG, KGAN and KWWL is free, as is news from traditional, reliable broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR). Even without paying for cable, one can visit the websites of CNN and MSNBC to get much of the information those outlets provide. Follow these kinds of outlets on social media and you can set yourself up for a regular snacking of local and national news nuggets via the headlines – you won’t even have to click and read the articles.

 Answer: True

It’s easy to argue that paying for news gets you more and better news. The volume and quality of content one gets as a subscriber to the following outlets is formidable: the CBJ, the Gazette, the Iowa City Press Citizen, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic. You can access a free article here and there but, for the most part, you must pay to be better informed.

Answer: None of the above

Let’s be honest, we all use social media as our short-order news aggregator cooks while we dine from a dubious buffet of news-ish snippets amplified by acquaintances from current and former jobs and social circles. There’s some good stuff in that hodgepodge; there’s also a heap of absolute rubbish posing as news, research and thoughtful editorials. The lines between reputable sources and agreeable-but-unreliable opinion flingers is more blurred than ever. Everyone navigates within and is affected by this matrix of sketchy news-ish looking stuff that can’t be trusted.

Answer: All of the above

Your media consumption habits and the price you pay for your information is personal. These days, your media menu is literally unlike anyone else’s and the price you pay or don’t pay is a part of this. Shaped by your routines, income and education, you participate in this media economy and go through the world knowing that what you regard as factual, helpful, curious or dangerous isn’t viewed the same way, or perhaps even accessible, to the person behind you at the checkout line.

So, why is the CBJ’s muser of media business musing on the state of journalism’s age-old paid vs. free information quandary? This is why – there’s a new creature on journalism’s “Road to Homo Sapiens” chart, and there’s a chance you don’t recognize his presence. He is upright and holds a very sharp spear but actually represents devolution.

Baked news

Journalism circles have been abuzz with the recent revelation that a network of nearly 1,300 newspaper-looking websites has been busy pushing out propaganda in all 50 states. Some look like the websites of traditional print dailies and some look like the websites of business weeklies like the CBJ. They have names like the Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Maine Business Daily.

These sites are funded by political think tanks, driven by political operatives and editorially engineered to favor certain corporations and politicians. PR firms are paid to orchestrate messaging. Freelance writers can make a quick $20 by lending one’s name and a blind eye to journalistic standards for delivering news-looking stories with a hidden agenda baked into them. Imagine how easy it’d be to rope a young writer into turning around such fare to make a little cash.

These sites have a conservative agenda and are the master plan of a former TV reporter named Brian Timpone. Left-leaning baked news sites exist, too – most notably an operation called Courier newsroom, which has eight such newspaper-looking websites in swing states.

You probably know enough about Iowa news outlets to question anything coming from the enigmatic Des Moines Sun, but what if you came across an article from the Illinois Valley Times or Empire State Today? Articles from these sites get shared and viral-boomeranged on social media by unsuspecting folks who, let’s be honest, want to read and share news-looking articles that confirm what they already believe.

We all love the idea of a free anything. Who among us wouldn’t like a free lunch or a free article here and there? Free journalism, unfortunately, is a tricky proposition that is only getting trickier. Are we heading toward a society in which only the people who pay for real journalism are aware of what’s really going on? Are we already there?

Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and marketer in the Corridor.