Make Journalism Pay Its Way?

Some time ago I made what I thought was the best case I could make for why philanthropy ought to support Journalism. Today I want to argue another side of that.

To be clear, my article about nonprofit Journalism was not about bailing out newspapers. It posited a split between news gathering, Journalism, and news delivery. News gathering is finding out what’s new. In many cases, online organizations are doing this better than traditional newspapers. News delivery is about how news gets to people. Again — so far — online organizations have newspapers beat.

Journalism, The Profession

But, then, there’s Journalism. This is a pursuit that goes beyond simple newsgathering. It’s a profession. Journalism is doing the shoe leather work of the reporter. It’s double-sourcing to make sure the story’s nailed. It’s not putting up with anonymous quotes. It’s digging deep to find the truth. This is an area where newspapers and other traditional news outlets still have a competitive advantage. They have deep knowledge and abilities in the Journalism space.

My previous article made the case that Journalism is not commercially viable and that it is something that foundations and philanthropy ought to consider supporting, as a public good.

However, as I said in that piece: “I am not entirely sure I buy this line of argument, primarily because I am optimistic that today’s pain will drive new creative responses that we haven’t thought of yet. . . . Somehow, I feel like resorting to foundation funding for Journalism is throwing in the towel.”

No Pain, No Gain

This is the same argument that Daniel Lyons of Newsweek makes when he rails against the idea of a government bailout of newspapers:

Nobody in their right mind believes the future of the news business involves paper and ink rather than pixels on a screen. We all know where the news business is headed, and what’s more, we’ve known it for at least a decade. So why on earth are people talking about a bailout for newspapers? Why is President Obama saying he’d consider it? Why is Congress holding hearings and considering “The Newspaper Revitalization Act” in a bid to save these ailing old rags with tax breaks and other handouts? It’s like introducing legislation to save horse-drawn carriages, or steam engines, or black-and-white TV. It’s stupid. It’s pointless. It won’t work. . . .

Instead of giving newspapers bailouts, we should be hastening their demise. The weak papers need to die. The strong newspapers need to go into bankruptcy and restructure their businesses with smaller staffs and lower cost structures. Yes, it will be painful. But journalists will find jobs—and they’ll be working in a better, faster medium.

Lyons is being overly harsh, but he makes a good point. Don’t save Journalism — make it survive. That’s the only way it will survive.

Too Important To Coddle

People make the argument that Journalism is a public good that is an integral foundation for our form of government, and so it must be supported. I reject that argument, because it misstates what is fundamental: it’s not the newspapers, it’s the freedom to report. If this is fundamental, then the very last thing a government ought to do is support Journalism, because the immediate question will arise: what constitutes a Journalist?

Similarly, if it’s so important, we can’t depend on foundations to keep the lifeline going. Philanthropy is subject to the same fads and is just as fickle as the next sector. (I say this as a past beneficiary of foundation support, during a time when there was a particular fad about democratic reform that then ran its course.)

The Business Of Journalism

$5700 by Flickr user AMagill
"$5700" by Flickr user AMagill

Perhaps we should start with the premise that Journalism is and ought to be commercially viable. So, what would the business model for Journalism look like?

In the first place, it might need to carve out a niche for itself that is away and apart from news gathering and news delivery. It loses those battles because of the very things that make for good Journalism: slowness and thoughtfulness.

Journalism might see itself as a provider to other organizations, as opposed to a direct-to-consumer system. Perhaps news delivery organizations could contract with Journalist organizations to get content.

Overall, it’s possible that the footprint of Journalism will shrink if it’s asked to make its own way commercially. That might not be terrible. The definition of Journalism I am using — that is, the deeper stuff, not the sports scores and the crime blotters — may only support a handful of of organizations.

Yes, But . . .

As with all these discussions, there’s always a rub. In this case, it’s access. The more commercially dependent Journalism is, and the more rareified a commodity it is, the more only rich organizations will want (and be able to) purchase the services of Journalists. Yet the service that Journalism provides is actually a public good. When political scandals are broken, when corporate malfeasance is exposed, the public needs to know, not the plutocrats.

This is an important point that can’t be overlooked. No, Journalism should not be coddled. But yes it should be made available to all. How to square these two perspectives, which are in inherent tension with one another?

One thought on “Make Journalism Pay Its Way?”

  1. I had to smile when I read the first blog on journalism vs newspapers. I served several times in a booth at a county fair for The Christian Science Monitor recently, and when I read your blog, it seemed to me that what you suggested is what The Christian Science Monitor has been doing for 100 years. Recently, it morphed from a daily print pub to a weekly print pub and on-line 24-7, acknowledging the difficulty it faced. I think I read that it had some 50,000 subscribers, and got a million hits a month online. In contrast to some other newpapers, it is maintaining its US and overseas bureaus, and continues to do journalism.

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