The Only ‘Journalism’ Subsidy We Need is in Bandwidth

Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols believe that “journalists deserve subsidies, too.” They argue that America is “nearing a point where we will no longer have more than minimal resources (relative to the nation’s size) dedicated to reporting the news.”

There’s every reason to dispute their woe-is-us assumption. There’s even more reason to say they are wildly off-base in calling for special subsidies for journalists.

The authors, longstanding activists in media reform, are exceedingly well-meaning. And they are more accurate than not when they say:

We seek to renew a rich if largely forgotten legacy of the American free-press tradition, one that speaks directly to today’s crisis. The First Amendment necessarily prohibits state censorship, but it does not prevent citizens from using their government to subsidize and spawn independent media.

Indeed, the post-colonial press system was built on massive postal and printing subsidies. The first generations of Americans never imagined that the market would provide sound or sufficient journalism. The notion was unthinkable. They established enlightened subsidies, which broadened the marketplace of ideas and enhanced and protected core freedoms. Their initiatives were essential to America’s progress.

If the authors had only pursued their logic, they’d have ended up at the only sensible conclusion — that taxpayers could well subsidize the equivalent of the postal and printing subsidies they celebrate (among many other infrastructure supports that helped get the news from one place to another, such as roads, never mind the variety of other government help that’s gone to news organizations over the past several centuries.

What would following their logic lead us to in a digital world? That’s easy: We should collectively install dark fiber to every home and business where it’s feasible to do so, and put fiber as close to the ones that are too remote to make sense otherwise. It should be “dark fiber” — that is, data lines not controlled by government but available for others to light up to provide services for users.

This would not be about journalism only, any more than building roads in the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries was about helping newspapers deliver their goods to people’s homes and businesses. It would be about boosting trade of services and information (for-profit and not-for-profit), one part of which would be media.

We are seeing an explosion of creativity and innovation in media and journalism right now. Entrepreneurs and big companies alike are experimenting in new forms of journalism and ways to pay for it.

We have never had so much high-quality coverage in some areas, such as technology, as we have today. We have never had so much truly local conversation that has high value as we have today. And we will have vastly more tomorrow.

We may well be losing, at least temporarily, some of what Alex Jones calls “accountability journalism” — hard-nosed reporting of what powerful institutions, including government, are doing with our money and, in some cases, our lives. But to assume it will disappear and not be replaced, especially given some of the experiments we’re seeing, is grossly premature.

But Nichols and McChesney make that worst-case assumption, and veer off to this conclusion:

Saving newspapers may be impossible. But we can save journalism. Step one is to begin debating ways for enlightened public subsidies to provide a competitive and independent digital news media. Also, we should greatly expand funding for public and community media, and establish policies that help convert dying daily newspapers into post-corporate low-profit news operations that realize the potential of the Internet. If we do so, journalism and democracy will not just survive. They will flourish.

We don’t need government support of this kind. It will lead us down a path that media reformers will rue: licensing of journalists, picking of winners and other pernicious outcomes.

Government surely does have a role, no question. But it should be to create the fundamental communications infrastructure on which tomorrow’s journalism can thrive.

8 thoughts on “The Only ‘Journalism’ Subsidy We Need is in Bandwidth”

  1. Problems on your idea, though.

    First, not just now, not just not in the next five years, or 10, but, IMO…

    Advertising will NEVER “monetize” online news sites of national size and of national/international distribution.

    Beyond continually falling online ad prices, people who know what they’re doing block most online ads with a mix of software and an updated hosts file. As this percentage gets larger, online ads will either get more “creative” (i.e. irritating), or dollars will drop further.

    I’m not saying Nichols is wrong; I am saying your idea is simplistic.

    MY solution(s) on the other hand, are less likely of adoption, because they start with depending on the corporate newspaper owners to show m ore brains about the Internet than they have in the past. And, my idea No. 1 is — PAYWALLS!

    STOP giving sh*t away! If your website ain’t making money on its own, then FIX THAT. Paywalls, reduced content, or even getting rid of it, if you need to.

  2. $5 per month per person would pay for all the artists, musicians, fil makers, journalists and bloggers, based on the measured popularity and quality of their works. No more publishers, newspapers, labels, production companies, distributors and other intermediaries.

    1. Not my favorite solution by a long shot. For example, who would decide specifically how to divide it up? We’d just be creating a new middleman, no?

      1. There can be about a dozen independent statistics services online like Google Analytics, Google Trends, scrobbler (that actually counts how many times you play back the downloaded files), Razorback statistics and other p2p BitTorrent/eDonkey statistics of p2p activity, basically people would be encouraged to let the statistics companies count and monitor not only what they download (which statistics services already do) but also install plugins to video/audio player software and into the actual browser, like Sidewiki, like Google Toolbar, basically a tiny extension in the browser reports back to the statistics firms all the articles that you read. A desktop/mobile phone switch instantly stops/resumes the reporting of your activities, if you want to have some “private” time. If you just have 1/100 people voluntarily signing up to report back their media consumption to independent statistics firms, then you will have 1000x more precise statistics on popularity. And add to that, let people rate (I like) or like a “star” button on everything, or just let it count when the whole video was watched, the whole song listened or the whole article was scrolled through at reading speed, then that counts as something that interested the user.

  3. Nichols, McChesney and “Socratic” have a failure of imagination. Dave Smith (Mediasmith) had an article over on the Harvard Business blog about Twitter’s business model (or what some think is the lack thereof). Not long ago, people were saying the same thing about Facebook (i.e., no biz model). They achieved profitability faster than expected to due apps like Farmville with virtual goods. I’m not saying that exact model is the solution but it’s new models that will offer a picture of the future.

    Looking in the rear view mirror for models — i.e., simplistic display ad models — of the future is folly. Some of the examples Dave gave could apply to the news business. I have bought a lot of media over the years as a marketer and can tell you that a print ad or 30 second spot isn’t the holy grail of marketing. I now own a local news and info site among other things and have already had advertisers ask us for our “Twitter offering”. We don’t have one yet but it points out that even a small local deli is looking for alternatives to what used to be the only game in town — the local newspaper. The basic notion of talking to prospective customers and actually listening combined with testing new ideas is the way to go.

    Paywalls are the biggest non-starter followed by micropayments. Both have been tried countless times and failed in virtually every instance.

    The real problem for the newspapers is their business people have been lazy and haven’t gone out and spoken who should be their natural customers. At best they are covering 5% of the addressable market using old shoe leather sales models developed hmmm 200 years ago. New ad types, mobile apps, self-serve ads, Inside Sales models, and countless other innovations are out there. It’s time for there to be a purge of the business people who’ve been lazy and put some people in who have some fire in their belly and some innovation. The bellyaching of this lazy bunch is getting tiresome. The latest is they gather yet again on Harvard’s campus to rehash and nash team. They should be spending that time sitting down 1:1 with customers or perhaps putting up money for an X-prize of a new marketing tool to sell.

    And for the record, I agree with Dan’s suggestion about if there is going to be any subsidy that it be for dark fiber.

  4. Dan, I realize A-listers basically need to hew to a line of rabid advocacy of advertising business models and all that entails, otherwise they’d get thrown out of the conference-club (it’s not even frothing laissez-faire ideology, since per above, government subsidy is just fine if it’s going to the businesses that A-listers serve!). But … aren’t you at least intellectually bothered by the need to fulminate against what’s essentially the ONLY existing journalism model that’s halfway functional RIGHT NOW? (i.e. public support) Not someday, not somewhere over the rainbow, not some little site held up as poster-child (e.g. TPMemo), not trust the A-list and if it doesn’t work, well, they move on to the next hype/fad/attention topic. But, considered against the real world, isn’t this standard convulsion itself an excellent exhibit in a Parade Of Horribles that should let us know something is wrong with it?

      1. Sorry, I tried to pack too much material into a short comment, while also attempting to write it in a way intended to discourage certain possible lines of attack. Never mind. No good will come of it.

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