As I read Larry Platt’s musings on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act’s proposed support for news organizations, I found myself experiencing an odd mix of agreement and dissent. The pattern of my head nodding up and down and then vigorously shaking side to side left me with a sore neck and the compulsion to write a rebuttal couched in a hurrah. Whether the struggling business of journalism merits taxpayer funding presents good fodder for debate.
The place to start is with what’s too frequently lacking in argument today, an attempt to bridge a divide by intentionally establishing areas of agreement and common ground before moving on to our differences. I concur with many of the sentiments Larry expresses. When the market isn’t buying what you’re selling, it’s rarely productive to blame the market.
His point that journalism has an opportunity to improve the product to appeal to a broader audience strikes me as an essential focus. The battle for attention grows fiercer every year. The proliferation of media sources and entertainment options, and the endless firehose of social media, create daunting levels of distraction and noise. Some part of lagging subscriptions or viewership must be attributed to a failure to meet consumer needs as well as alternative solutions.
Better journalism, presented more effectively to address more reader needs, will improve business results. But it won’t close this value gap, such that essential journalism would in all likelihood remain underfunded relative to the benefit it contributes to our society.
Comparing traditionally presented news to traditionally presented entertainment conjures the analogy of veggies being jilted in favor of dessert. I continue to believe not enough attention has been paid to more engaging storytelling, rebuilding trust, and closing the gap between information and action to not only make a difference for communities but to also make sure those communities become aware of the impact.
We also agree on the importance of journalism holding leaders accountable and enabling an informed citizenry to avoid the fate of democracy dying in darkness. As much as I enjoy my favorite podcasts, blogs and social media feeds, I’d assert few to none have the muscle or skill to reveal malfeasance in the manner of trained journalists with some critical mass of resources and protections.
Many among us will have a favorite Hollywood ode to essential journalism, whether it’s Spotlight celebrating the Boston Globe’s investigation into child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests or The Post reminding us how the Pentagon Papers revealed our government lied about our involvement in the Vietnam War. It’s impossible to not get energized about the role of journalism when thinking about Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the Watergate scandal.
While not debating the value of journalism, I’ve wondered what it would look like to increase the value of being informed. With only one-fifth of people in the U.S. paying for journalism, and 1,800 local papers now out of business, one could make the case that not enough people discern sufficient benefit. Here’s an illustrative example of increasing the value of being informed, offered only as a thought exercise without a claim of being either practical or appropriate: Imagine that all local businesses offered discounts only to those who can answer questions from the news.
Or even further out on a limb, imagine that only those who were informed enough to answer those questions were allowed to vote. Or that if you read a set of articles about issues facing the city and budget tradeoffs, your voice could be represented in crowdsourcing a budget allocation proposal for the mayor well beyond the $1 million put into Participatory Budgeting. You might find these propositions somewhere between inadvisable and foolish, but they’re explicative situations in which the consumer of journalism captures the value of information they’ve paid to acquire.
This line of thought leads to my main counterpoint, so while there’s plenty more areas of agreement—from the need for real diversity and noting it can’t be all about ‘hunting for scandal’ to the potential for solutions journalism—I’ll get on with the enticing business of disagreement. With the prevailing interest in journalism’s impact being a public good with a significant free-rider problem, taxpayer funding is both appropriate and good policy.
Fast forward from Watergate to today and it’s still not a difficult task to point out compelling, meaningful journalism making a difference in the world. Not to speak ill of the dead, but if Norman Mailer didn’t find anything ‘interesting or stimulating or challenging’ in papers like The New York Times, he wasn’t paying attention, legendary as he may be. This applies to far more than the national papers. In more local contexts like Spotlight PA, we’ve seen investigative work drive regulatory change and The Inquirer’s “Toxic City” investigations led to laws protecting students from lead in our schools and to investment in cleaning up asbestos.
Who benefits from curtailing improper spending by government officials? Who benefits from reducing health issues and suffering among public school students and their families? The returns certainly don’t accrue just to subscribers of the news services driving change. Compare those scenarios to typical purchases. If you buy a Peloton, a plant or a chocolate bar, you—the person paying—capture the desired benefits. You improve your health, beautify your house and enjoy a tasty treat (maybe undoing the Peloton benefit a bit).
While paywalls can be erected to restrict access to the journalism itself, the impact of journalism conforms to both tests of a public good. First, my use of the information or the outcome (e.g., less government corruption) doesn’t get in the way of your use. Second, people enjoy benefits whether they pay or not. Why pay if you can capture the value without paying?
Hence we see critical services like the police, national defense or roads paid for by taxes. “Free-rider” problems occur when people who don’t pay for a good—such as holding government officials accountable to serving public interests instead of their own—still enjoy that benefit. Given they can get the benefit without paying, economists would expect to observe under-investment in the production of that good. Too many people would prefer that someone else shoulders the burden and therefore choose to not pay if they think the good will still be produced on someone else’s dime. Is it possible we have underinvestment in local journalism due to this construct? Absolutely. If journalism improved materially would this still be true? Absolutely.
With the prevailing interest in journalism’s impact being a public good with a significant free-rider problem, taxpayer funding is both appropriate and good policy.
Some people with the ability to pay will express their appreciation of the press with donations, subscriptions or both. They still won’t be able to fully capture the value enabled by their support. Those with the most to gain in society are far less likely to be able to fund journalism with either donations or subscriptions. Either way, underinvestment ensues in the absence of traditional remedies for public goods, such as taxpayer support.
Journalists and news organizations shouldn’t escape scrutiny any more than the public figures they cover. We can agree that industries must evolve and improve or face existential threats. I simply want to encourage people who believe taxpayer funded support for journalism is a handout or a crutch to reflect on the discrepancy between value creation and value capture for public goods. Better journalism, presented more effectively to address more reader needs, will improve business results. But it won’t close this value gap, such that essential journalism would in all likelihood remain underfunded relative to the benefit it contributes to our society.
Coda: I wish my dad were alive to see me put my economics degree to use in a discussion of public goods. Our family didn’t grow up with a big bank account, but he was proud to have put both my brother and I through college largely on the back of a single investment he had made many years earlier: The Washington Post Company.
Some who follow the business of journalism may be aware that the Washington Post was in the process of going public during the discussion of whether to publish the Pentagon Papers. They ended up doing so three days before listing on the New York Stock Exchange, with Katharine Graham undeterred by her acute awareness of that decision making the organization “particularly liable to any kind of criminal prosecution from the government.”
I’ve always thought of that moment as showing journalism can succeed because of a commitment to publishing news that matters, not despite it. Here’s to recreating a world in which journalistic endeavors capture the kind of value that puts more kids through college.
Roy Rosin is Penn Medicine’s chief innovation officer and a board member of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
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