Funding Journalism

TAS’s newest contributor, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writes:

It also shows something that an outlet like The Economist shows: print media that offer true value for money can be profitable, and even very profitable, and remain so for the foreseeable future.

Let’s be even more blunt about what it takes to survive in the media world: You have to have information no one else has. That information has to be information that people need or want. And you probably have to charge people for it.

Conor wants to find out what sort of losses are coming with the decline of journalism. If he can answer that (no small task), my next question is: How much is what we’re losing actually worth?

For most of the last century, at least, the newspaper business has been incredibly successful. And as a result, it’s gotten used to certain luxuries — largely in the form of interesting but inessential news coverage, and, of course, the salaries to pay for it.

Put candidly, there are a lot of journalists out there doing work that doesn’t need to be done, that isn’t worth what it costs to produce.

Perhaps my view is cruelly reductionist. There is some value, of course, in that which isn’t profitable. I’m not sure, for example, that I’ve ever written for a profitable publication. But ideologically driven publications that are more or less designed to lose money and are funded by wealthy backers who have an interest in the publication’s ideas aren’t really the issue here.

Instead, the issue is repetitive reporting across papers, which may have been necessary at one time but isn’t any longer. It’s local-paper beat reporters covering beats that are of value to tiny numbers, and not of interest to wealthy advertisers. It’s reporting that’s designed to fill space rather than inform, provoke, or enlighten enough people — or sell enough advertising — to justify the cost to produce it.

This doesn’t mean I think a lot of interesting but financially inessential journalism should go away. To the contrary! Journalism will need to do a lot of restructuring, and certain types of reporting will fade away. But it strikes me that a big part of the problem is that it’s very difficult for motivated organizations and individuals to contribute financialy to the sort of journalism that interests the. And this is why I believe that the future of journalism looks a lot like the world of non-profit politics: a mix of corporate sponsorship, wealthy backers, and small individual donors supporting missions they believe necessary, or just interesting.

The market for this is young, at best, but twenty-five years ago, the conservative/libertarian non-profit world was tiny, comprised of a handful of understaffed organizations. Now there’s a conservative think tank in nearly every state and more D.C.-based organizations, some with dozens of employees, working on federal issues than I could possibly list. Why did this happen? Because, despite the lack of a traditional market for conservative ideas, they were nonetheless very much in demand from people who had money to give — and they remain so today. Although the rough economy has forced some of these groups to cut back in the short-term, the medium to long-term future for the right-of-center ideas and advocacy industry looks bright. No doubt the model isn’t directly transferable to the news media, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned, and maybe — I hope! — in twenty-five years, I’ll be able to issue a similarly optimistic report on the future of non-profit journalism.