Saturday, January 9, 2010

Journalism Fails: Give it a Bailout

In the Nation there is a follow up article stating that we taxpayers should bail out the journalism which we are no longer buying because it is good for us, at least those journalists that the Government approves. McLuhan would be rolling over in his grave. They state:

The implications are clear: if our policy-makers do nothing, if "business as usual" prevails, we face a future where there will be relatively few paid journalists working in competing newsrooms with editors, fact-checkers, travel budgets and institutional support. Vast areas of public life and government activity will take place in the dark--as is already the case in many statehouses across the country. Independent and insightful coverage of the basic workings of local, state and federal government, and of our many interventions and occupations abroad, is disappearing as rapidly as the rainforests. The political implications are dire. ... Popular rule doesn't work without an informed citizenry, and an informed citizenry cannot exist without credible journalism.

This is more than academic theory; it is how the Supreme Court has interpreted the matter. As Justice Potter Stewart explained in 1974, the framers believed the First Amendment mandated the existence of a Fourth Estate because our experiment in constitutional democracy cannot succeed without it. That is hardly a controversial position, nor one that is necessarily left wing. It should be inviting to readers of the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, as markets cannot work effectively or efficiently unless investors, managers, workers and consumers have the credible information produced by serious journalism. ....We need to take a dose of our own medicine, and fast. Unfortunately, misconceptions about the crisis and the proper relationship between government and media warp the debate. ...

The most dangerous misconception has to do with journalism itself. Journalism is a classic "public good"--something society needs and people want but market forces are now incapable of generating in sufficient quality or quantity. ...The public-good nature of journalism has been largely disguised for the past century because advertising bankrolled much of the news, for better and for worse, in its efforts to reach consumers. Those days are over, as advertisers no longer need or seek to attach their appeals to journalism to connect with target audiences. Indeed, to the extent commercial media can scrap journalism standards to make the news "product" more attractive to advertisers, the cure will be worse than the disease.

Frankly the form of journalism is changing and yes people buy newspaper or access other forms of information based upon their likes. I remember growing up in New York City when your political beliefs were transmitted by the paper you bought. My father was an avid reader of the Telegram, he would never read the News, The Journal American, the Sun, the Mirror, or Times and the Post was a "communist" paper. You see I read the Post secretly in College, and never really understood why. There must have been more than a dozen daily papers, morning and afternoon. Then they disappeared replaced by Television. No one screamed then.

Today newspaper are still political, the Times in New York, well we all know its bent, fair and balanced is not in their lexicon, no where, but since we know it we filter accordingly. You see I actually get the Times every day, my lovely wife reads the paper and I read the on line version. As expected I find it easier, I never liked the big sheets of paper.

But calling the newspapers a public good, that is a bit too much. News is always going through a set of changes. We have seen broadsides, pamphlets, town meetings, the local pub, radio, telegraph, and now the Internet. In fact the Internet allows direct access to news from afar, yes it is biased, just read Pravda from Moscow, but I know that. I read China Daily, knowing how it is filtered, but I still get information. I do not need the Times to tell me. In fact, I gather the information well before the Times, in most cases. And I do not have to filter a slant atop a slant.

The authors continue:

By ignoring the public-good nature of journalism and the roots of the current crisis, too many contemporary observers continue to fantasize that it is just a matter of time before a new generation of entrepreneurs creates a financially viable model of journalism using digital technologies. By this reasoning, all government needs to do is clear the path with laxer regulations, perhaps some tax credits and a lot of cheerleading. ...

This public good issue is truly annoying. There is no public good because there is no true unbiased news, and in fact people all too often seek just to have their own ideas reinforced. Just look at Glenn Beck, I do not understand him, but he is a Father Coughlin of 2010s.

The authors continue:

Our research suggests that press subsidies may well have been the second greatest expense of the federal budget of the early Republic, following the military. This commitment to nurturing and sustaining a free press was what was truly distinctive about America compared with European nations that had little press subsidy, fewer newspapers and magazines per capita, and far less democracy. This history was forgotten by the late nineteenth century, when commercial interests realized that newspaper publishing bankrolled by advertising was a goldmine, especially in monopolistic markets. Huge subsidies continued to the present, albeit at lower rates than during the first few generations of the Republic.

Yes indeed they want us to subsidize the Press. Well frankly folks where does freedom of the Press go when the Government subsidizes it. I listen to NPR when in norther New Hampshire because there is nothing else in the day time and then at night I switch to French Canadian stations, and yes it does keep my French up to date albeit with a twang, "away is the way they say "oui" for those of you who have net been there.

The authors finally end with:

In our new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, we offer proposals for long-term subsidies to spawn independent digital journalism. But we do not claim to have all the answers. What we claim--what we know--is that it is now imperative that emergency measures be proposed, debated and implemented. People need to see tangible examples of "public good" interventions, or the discussion about renewing journalism will amount to little more than fiddling while Rome burns. The point now is to generate popular participation in and support for a small-d democratic response.

The starting point could be a debate about "bailouts" to keep struggling commercial news media, especially newspapers and magazines, afloat. As a rule, we oppose bailing out or subsidizing commercial news media. We believe subsidies should go primarily to nonprofit and noncommercial media. We are not doctrinaire on this point and believe it should be subject to debate, especially for short-term, emergency measures. If subsidies do go to commercial interests, the public needs to get something of substance in return. But the lion's share of subsidies must go now and in the future to developing and expanding the nonprofit and noncommercial sector. Journalism needs an institutional structure that comports with its status as a public good.

Journalism may really be dying and information may be its doing. You see we can access information, albeit biased, on the Internet and we do not need an intermediary to tell us what the facts are, colored by their viewpoints and values. Journalism is an old craft where the reporter goes out and seeks out a story, the reporter creates out of what is before them a tale that is of interest hopefully to the readers so that the paper may sell and print ads. Reporters are generally incompetent in many of the fields they report upon; law, medicine, science, technology, and the list goes on. The typical reporter gets quotes, records some facts, worthwhile or worthless, and then writes them up in a generally acceptable manner. The reporting is constrained by the reporter's bias, judgement, and the editorial philosophy of the paper. To call this a public good is a bit much.

The Internet is a new medium, in McLuhan terms the medium determines what is fact, and with the new medium the users of it are redefining facts. The "facts" of the old journalism world are no longer valid, so just let the stinking corpse be buried, why should we be taxed to have the smell stay around. Better yet, build a funeral pyre!