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News as a Public Good

In a feature-length essay titled “Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic,Clay Shirky lays out the problems of the news business in a particularly insightful way.

Here’s what the newspaper business sounds like: the modestly talented son of the founder can generate double-digit margins based on little more than the happy accident that there are people who like football and buy cars living within 30 miles of his house.

That’s the newspaper business, or at least it was until recently. The average US paper runs more soft than hard news, uses more third-party content than anything created by their own staff, and reaches more people who care about local teams than local zoning.

The Web, of course, killed that model because it’s simply a much more useful mechanism for giving people information about the things they’re interested in while skipping the things they don’t care about. Indeed, I no longer live anywhere near where the Dallas Cowboys, Alabama Crimson Tide, or Atlanta Braves play and get much, much more news about them now than when I lived in their local or regional markets.

It’s easy to view the current business climate as a culling of the herd, but newspapers are not barbershops; the closing of a hair-cutting business in Oklahoma wouldn’t much affect people in New Hampshire, but the closing of a paper would, because the nation’s news publications are sewn together in a crazy quilt of shared cost and effort.

The News and Eagle, the Laconia Citizen, the Biloxi Sun-Herald, the Deer Park Tribune, and a thousand more such papers are all but monopoly suppliers of local news, they all train young reporters who go on to work elsewhere, they all employ the stringers who are on the scene when a tornado hits, and they all buy syndicated content from the Associated Press or King Features, who in turn lower costs for some publishers while raising revenue for others. When a paper fires reporters or closes outright, it further weakens that fabric.

This is something I’ve never really thought of before. Most local newspapers are simply godawful. The writing and editing are often laughable–of a quality that wouldn’t be acceptable on a decent university newspaper. But not only are they often the only game in town but they’re part of a larger ecosystem that’s being destroyed.

Still, the business model was always bizarre:

Buy a newspaper. Cut it up. Throw away the ads. Sort the remaining stories into piles. Now, describe the editorial logic holding those piles together.

If you’ve picked a general interest paper, this will be hard. I recently learned, from a single day’s paper, that a bombing in Kirkuk killed 27, that Penelope Cruz has only good memories of filming Pirates of the Caribbean while pregnant, that many U.S. business hotels are switching to ‘shower-only’ bathrooms, and that 30-year fixed mortgages fell from 4.63% to 4.61% the week before.

The rationale for creating such a bundle went something like this: “We will print enough content to fill the hole left after we’ve sold the advertising space. We will include content proportional to the amount and intensity of reader interest, modified somewhat by editorial judgment. Overall, the value of the bundle will be more than the sum of its parts.”

 

I grew up reading newspapers and did so avidly from roughly 1982 to 2003. But even in those days, most of the paper was just bird cage liner; and I didn’t even own a bird. In order to get to the political and sports coverage I was interested in, I had to wade past a lot of junk–and, of course, ads.

My newspaper habit shifted exclusively to the Web earlier than most because of this blog. Once I became a content producer rather than just a consumer, news that I couldn’t copy, paste, and link became all but worthless to me. You quite literally can’t give me a newspaper now, unless I’m staying at your hotel. We still take the Sunday Washington Post–which is still on the doorstep as I type–but I’ll throw it straight into the recycle bin after extracting the Sunday magazines and perhaps a couple of sales circulars. They constantly offer to give me the other six days for free in order to boost their circulation numbers; I probably should help them in this regard but it’s just not worth another 311 trips down the driveway each year to collect and discard the paper.

I actually consume much more news than ever,  in terms of both quantity and diversity of sources. For a while, I was missing out on the serendipity factor–finding something interesting by sheer accident as I was flipping past stories I didn’t care about–but Twitter, Reddit, and other aggregators have more than replaced it.

But even in their worst days, newspapers supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news, for the minority of citizens who cared. In return, the people who followed sports or celebrities, or clipped recipes and coupons, got to live in a town where the City Council was marginally less likely to be corrupt.

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked. Online, though, the economic and technological rationale for bundling weakens—no monopoly over local advertising, no daily allotment of space to fill, no one-size-fits-all delivery system. Newspapers, as a sheaf of unrelated content glued together with ads, aren’t just being threatened with unprofitability, but incoherence.

Indeed. Of course, it’s actually pretty hard to make money writing about nothing but the Dallas Cowboys. The Dallas Morning News has experimented off and on over the years with gating off their Cowboys content behind a paywall. But there are so many other outlets providing comparable, if not superior, coverage that it’s a hard sell.

But Shirky’s non-business point is interesting, too: The part of the paper that we call “news” and which was the ostensible point of the enterprise, was essentially a hobby that publishers engaged in out of passion or civic duty; the vast majority of the folks buying the product were actually more interested in the comics, crosswords, horoscopes, and sports pages.

So, we have a service that is vital to our society and no viable way of paying for it.

News has to be subsidized because society’s truth-tellers can’t be supported by what their work would fetch on the open market. However much the Journalism as Philanthropy crowd gives off that ‘Eat your peas’ vibe, one thing they have exactly right is that markets supply less reporting than democracies demand. Most people don’t care about the news, and most of the people who do don’t care enough to pay for it, but we need the ones who care to have it, even if they care only a little bit, only some of the time. To create more of something than people will pay for requires subsidy.

News has to be cheap because cheap is where the opportunity is right now. For all that the Journalism as Capitalism people can sound like Creflo Dollar mid-sermon, they are right to put their faith in new models for news. If for-profit revenue is shrinking and non-profit funding won’t make up the shortfall, we need much cheaper ways of gathering, understanding, and disseminating news, whether measured in information produced or readers served.

And news has to be free, because it has to spread. The few people who care about the news need to be able to share it with one another and, in times of crisis, to sound the alarm for the rest of us.

There are some models out there:

Real news—reporting done for citizens instead of consumers—is a public good. This is true both in the colloquial sense of ‘good for the public’ and in the economic sense of ‘best provisioned for a whole group at once.’

[…]

Taking cash from advertisers is one way to do this, though a less good one than it used to be. As Jay Rosen points out*, many other ways are possible: NewWest.net gets money from its conference business*The Guardian from the Scott Trust*. Donations are still another: some organizations have a syndicate of large donors, as with ProPublica * or The American Independent*. Others have many small donors, as with the crowdfunding of Spot.us projects, or the listener donations to NPR.

And, critically, subsidy can be in savings rather than cash. Some of what professionals did in the old model can now be done in combination with amateurs, or crowds, or machines: MAPlight* and PoliGraft* and Sunlight’s Lobbying Tracker* couldn’t track links between money and politics without online databases; the Charlotte News Alliance* and the Tuscon Citizen * rely on local bloggers; the Davis Wiki* and the the Oil Spill Crisis Map* provide structure to user-contributed material; Tackable is betting that the first photographer on the scene will be a citizen with a phone*.

It’s not clear that any of this is scalable. The NPR/PBS model does in fact produce news reporting of outstanding quality. They could likely do it without government funding but, as the business model of traditional news outlets collapses, my objections to taxpayer subsidy are less strenuous. And it may be that online news organizations built from the bottom up and not as the electronic version of a dead tree publication can work. Politico, Huffington Post, TPM, and others seem to be managing. But all of the examples that come readily to mind are for national and international news. I’m not sure local news can generate enough enthusiasm to replicate any of those models.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think a hyper-regional site would be successful. For example, I live on the Western Slope of Colorado and care about state-wide and regional impacts on me but not the Denver mayoral race (Denver is on the eastern slope of the Rockies). Perhaps a site designed somewaht on the Huffington Post model plus a weekly delivered magazine with ads to read over Sunday coffee would be viable.

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  2. steve says:

    I think the model of the future will also include explicitly hyper-partisan newspapers with national circulations. There is a market for anger and outrage.

    Steve

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  3. James says:

    The majority of people get their news from television, and increasingly from the internet..

    Fox News has the anger-and-outrage market sewed up, both at the local and the national TV level. There’s only so much anger-and-outrage that is viable — most people tire of that and have the need to get on with living their lives. Those who feed off the anger-and-outrage addiction are already Fox watchers, they aren’t going to turn to newspapers for that.

    As to the hyper-local issue, well Patch is trying that. Maybe it will catch on, but is there really enough market for west-slope Colorado issues to justify the salaries of a couple of journalists, plus overhead? I’m skeptical. Huffington Post has a Denver local section — I don’t know how it is doing. But you have to look at the quality there, and the relevance to actual newsworthy material, as opposed to lists of restaurants and slide shows of mansions for sale.

    As to government funding — I’m skeptical. The Beebe, of course, is treasured, and you have Agence France Presse which is largely funded by the French government, but I’m not sure such a model would fly in the US. I hate to see NPR constantly begging for money, and the political operatives have insinuated themselves into their news operations, but they do remain responsive to their audience in ways that government funding would not allow. A model like BBC or AFP would be a political football constantly, creating instability that would be the antithesis of high-quality news reporting.

    I like the Pro-Publica model, which has turned out some very high quality journalism consistently, on a non-profit model that is independent of government interference. I’d like to see more of that kind of journalism — free of both advertiser AND government micro-management.

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  4. john personna says:

    I think James describes the situation, and the problem (to the extent that it is a problem) pretty well. I think we could restructure government spending for public media a bit, to make it more like a “feed” for others to blend and less like a “network,” but that wouldn’t change the local news picture.

    I don’t know, maybe high schools and junior colleges will have to pick up local news.

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  5. john personna says:

    Just to throw a link, here is some pretty spacey tech in what might be called future news.

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  6. The problem with public subsidy is that once the government is paying for the news, it becomes the new outfit’s customer, not the readers. The writing will, perhaps not even conciously, shift to become devoted to arguing for the government’s viewpoint and the bureaus will be less likely to challenge the government or point out embarassing stories.

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  7. john personna says:

    So you say away from the beeb there stormy?

    (The argument that public media must be bad is a little like the one the bubble bees cannot fly.)

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  8. reid says:

    Stormy: Like jp, I’m skeptical of a USBC necessarily being corrupt and biased. We already have examples that prove it doesn’t have to be the case. Surely, the charter could establish enough independence that it could be avoided?

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  9. @john personna:

    So you say away from the beeb there stormy?

    First of all, yes I do stay away from the BBC in terms of reporting on the British Government itself (for the best depiction of why, I can only refer to the restaurant scene at the end of the Yes, Minister episode “The Challenge”). But even the BBC isn’t really government funded. It’s funded by an annual license fee for televisions, so it has to focus on its viewers: if they stop watching TV, it gets less money. NPR is a similar story. Part of the reason its one of the best news outfits in the US is that it’s one of the few that is primarily funded by its own viewers rather than by advertisers.

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  10. @reid:

    Surely, the charter could establish enough independence that it could be avoided?

    Sure it could be avoided. The question is will it be avoided? If the news operation is funded by the government, even if it has the ability to thumb its nose at the government, there will be a strong financial incentive not to, for fear it will result in reduced financing the next time its appropriations comes up. Just look at the current washington press corp, which rarely asks very challenging questions merely over the fear of losing access. Now imagine those politicians, rather then just refusing to grant interviews or answer questions, could also vote to lower your funding? Do you think those reporters are really going to push the President or members of congress very hard?

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  11. reid says:

    Stormy: Maybe I’m not as cynical (or realistic, perhaps) as you, but yes, I think it could work.

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  12. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    But even the BBC isn’t really government funded. It’s funded by an annual license fee for televisions, so it has to focus on its viewers: if they stop watching TV, it gets less money.

    Heh, that’s a pretty fine way to slice it, by the kind of tax, and if the TV is on.

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