How to pay for the news

May 12, 2008

Faced with advertising declines, the news media are scratching for alternative revenue sources. They want their new money to have the same features industrial countries want in their alternatives to oil: That it be clean and renewable.

That kind of money isn’t easy to find.  One shimmering new funding source has been nonprofit foundations –  public-minded philanthropies whose curators view journalism as a civic boon that’s worth staking.

The $230 million bequest to National Public Radio in 2004 from the late Joan Kroc, widow of the founder of McDonald’s, was the godmother of such largesse. Then came last year’s electrifying $30 million pledge from financial entrepreneurs Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler to bankroll three years of Pro Publica, a brand-new investigative journalism initiative.

Pro Publica cast a long shadow over the recent two-day symposium I attended at the University of California, Berkeley, on the future of investigative journalism.  True, powerhouse organizations – notably the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times –  declared that what Post executive editor Leonard Downie calls “accountability journalism” will remain central to their work.

But those assurances couldn’t dispel the larger anxiety that real reporting –  important inquiries built patiently, one phone call and one document at a time, on curiosity and persistence — is in peril. The Internet transformation has redirected newsrooms onto speed, interactivity and imaginative presentation. Worse, the advertisers are leaving the building.

So what will happen? Where will news media find their next durable source of subsidy?

Because face it, subsidy is what we’re talking about. News, from the days of party patronage to today, has always relied on the blindness of strangers. Even the advertising-support model is a system of subsidy: The advertisers’ customers foot the bill to inform or amuse the media outlet’s audience. The journalist hitches a ride.

So yes, with advertisers fleeing to YouTube and purpose-built ad sites, nonprofits may indeed be a widening source of newsroom subsidy.

But pestering rich people or their foundations for periodic handouts, in hopes they won’t care overly much what the money is used for, doesn’t go far toward ensuring clean and renewable funding.

The new structure of media support must be more diversified.  Advertising and subscription income will be part of it. Here are three other less obvious responses that might help:

– Incorporate in-kind subsidy: More and more reporting and commentary comes from people with non-media day jobs, whether consultants, professors, publicists, politicos or free-floating intellectual laborers. That can be disturbing, as with the recent scandal over TV military “analysts” who were secretly Pentagon dependents. It can also be exciting, as with the rise of citizen journalism.

The outlook is for greater reliance on content subsidy — directly from producers themselves, who accept token payments for work that would otherwise cost media outlets much more; indirectly from their off-stage employers, who shoulder the real costs. The challenge is to create workable models – and tough conflict-of-interest rules — to incorporate non-staff into the emerging media ecology.

– Start billing those who benefit from near-news: Journalists have long been embarrassed by how much so-called reporting is stenographic – town council actions rendered as news reports, company press releases barely rewritten but displayed under staff bylines. These aren’t news, they’re institutional advertisements posted for free. Why not drop the pretense, start charging for running self-serving content, label it for what it is?  Let those who benefit pay, and free up reporters for journalism.

– Develop content readers will pay for — and charge them what it’s worth: Plenty of newsletters and specialized publications get top-dollar for tough, insightful, costly journalism about companies, courts, politics, health. General interest media are capable of that, and even if they keep their websites largely free, some portion of their readership will pay well for reporting that tells them what’s really going on. Let them. Does that mean good journalism will be only for the well-heeled? Not at all. Those specialized publications have always fed the larger informational food chain. What their readers expect is consistent quality and a first look.

The economic model of news that will succeed the fading system of reliance on consumer advertising is still taking shape. It will likely combine novel elements of subsidy and direct support, and will be driven by both public interest and self-interest. With luck, it will continue to produce something we’ll recognize as journalism.

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