How to save journalism

Wonky piece in CiF about how, well, gosh, lots of journalists are losing their jobs and we\’ve got to do something about it.

You know the sort of thing, when it\’s the people writing the papers in danger then the papers get filled with the danger.

There\’s a call for, wait for it, \”A National Journalism Strategy\”. Yup, the politicians, who depend largely upon the press for their publicity, should be put in charge of the press. Great, just great.

Other proposals are low or non-profit structures: well, yes, perhaps, but this doesn\’t really address the basic point which is that, umm, there are no profits for most American newspapers. So how restructuring so that you\’re not pursuing what isn\’t there will help is, umm, difficult to see.

Or co-ops….like AP. AP is also of course going bust so this isn\’t much help. Or, and get this, Municipal ownership. Yeah, right, ownership by City Hall is really going to boost the investigation of City Hall, ain\’t it?

Or, and yes, they really say this, perhaps NPR could be turned into something more like the BBC……

Or, and get this, how about just giving Federal money to laid off journalists? Quite how this solves the basic problem, that there just isn\’t a revenue model to support the number of journalists already extant isn\’t really explained.

However, we know we\’re entirely in La-La Land from the very first sentence of the report.

Journalism is a public good.

Err, no, journalism is both excludable and rivalrous. It is therefore not a public good. If you\’re going to be that far off base with your original sentence, the rest is simply going to be nonsense, isn\’t it?

8 thoughts on “How to save journalism”

  1. The worrying thing with the death of newspapers is the issue of invigilation.
    Currently, there is at least the threat of exposure by regional and national newspapers.
    Up and down the land, reporters are sitting in court cases (occasionally, even at evening newspaper level, challenging judges’ rulings), sitting in local council meetings, doing police calls, writing stories about dodgy business practices and so on.
    This sort of thing has declined dramatically in the ten years since I left journalism (having spent a decade or more in newspapers, I left to do other stuff) and it’s now done very poorly.
    But the idea that it might not be done at all – and moreoever, that the authorities would know from the off that it was not going to be done – fills me with horror.
    There is simply no way that – as currently set up – bloggers or online media can fill the gap.
    Most bloggers are commentators and most of their comment is based on links to items in the national and regional press.
    If we can find a way for bloggers to file copy from (say) the planning committee meeting at Blandford Forum, or the magistrates’ court in Tamworth, great. But how?
    I know that the planning committee in Blandford and Tamworth mags are probably covered sporadically at best, but that’s an argument for improving coverage, not doing away with it.
    Personally, I would reluctantly accept local authority money currently wasted on nonsense being diverted to fund regional newspapers.
    (I would obviously prefer all local authority waste to be ended, and would prefer newspapers to stand on their own two feet, but it seems that’s not possible.)
    National newspapers worry me less, though they need to sort out their online funding model.

  2. “journalism is both excludable and rivalrous”

    come again?

    Rival Good: may only be possessed or consumed by a single user. Using a rival good prevents its use by other possible users.

    Excludable Good: it is possible to exclude people who have not paid for a good or service from consuming it.

    You hire a team of investigative journalists, and you invest in them over time, so they know their stuff

    What’s the product? “original stories”, call them “scoops”.

    Is a scoop rival? Does one person consuming a scoop prevent another person from consuming it? Perhaps if you want to miss the point, and say that two people can’t read a newspaper at once, but of course the ability to print many newspapers means many people can consume scoops at the same time without diminishing the available quantity of scoop. With the internet, that debate’s over: journalism is not rival.

    Is journalism excludable? Maybe, on the morning the scoop hits the newstands, you can prevent people from consuming the story unless they buy your paper, but hours later TV and radio has picked the story up, and other newspapers are on it, and their reporters will be all over it. You can argue the toss over the precise extent to which journalism is excludable (The Daily Telegraph probably got a circulation bump out of the expenses scandal) but really you’re being perverse to argue that the bit of journalism that matters – original reportage, information production – isn’t a public good.

    I think your concluding observation “If you’re going to be that far off base …… the rest is simply going to be nonsense, isn’t it?” Has rebounded rather nastily on you, in this case.

    (Here’s another Robin Hanson piece you might be interested in)

    Tim adds: Come on now: the Daily Telegraph is both excludable and rivalrous. So are online pages behind subscription barriers (where Reuters and Bloomberg make all their money). As is Sky News.

  3. “Personally, I would reluctantly accept local authority money currently wasted on nonsense being diverted to fund regional newspapers.”

    How about just compelling local authorities to publish, in easily accessible formats, the complete, unexpurgated proceedings of all of their committees, cabinets and other cabals so we can see what they’re doing with our money. Not only would this give bloggers something to link (and fisk), it would (theoretically) increase accountability, even absent the attention of the blogosphere.

  4. Tim, “information” is the archetypal non-rival, non-excludable good – when people worry about the demise of journalism, it’s not the physical pieces of paper they are worried about losing, it’s the production of valuable information.

    Even Reuters and Bloomberg cannot prevent other non-subscribers from consuming stories they generate; that’s why news is a loss-leader for both of them. You have to pay to watch Sky News – there are rival and exludable elements to that (the presenter’s winning looks, perhaps), but if Sky News breaks a news story, they cannot prevent non-subscribers from consuming it.

    If journalism was rival and excludable, if I’d wanted to read about the expenses scandal, I’d have had to buy The Daily Telegraph. I didn’t. If journalism was rival and excludable, media companies would have an enormous incentives to generate original information – as it is, they don’t. What sort of problems characterize public goods? Free rider problems – surely you appreciate there’s a free rider problem involved in the incentives to produce original journalism? Unoriginal journalism is neither here nor there – when so-and-so gives a press conference, anybody can cover it.

    I am not arguing there is nothing rival or excluable in the media business, but you really are missing the wood from the trees here.

  5. Luis, you are not quite right about Reuters, Bloomberg or the other wires. They file news in real time, and folk like City traders pay a premium to get news headlines that pop up in seconds of an announcement in order to get the quickest possible trading edge. So there is still a value here that they pay for.

  6. Johnathan,

    you are right – delivering news before other people have it is an excludable, non-public good, and is a big part of what those guys do.

  7. “How about just compelling local authorities to publish, in easily accessible formats, the complete, unexpurgated proceedings of all of their committees, cabinets and other cabals so we can see what they’re doing with our money”

    Or put a couple of web cams in their meetings with mics so we can watch anytime we like. If they’ve nothing to hide…..

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