Government support for journalism is no panacea

Today, I had a Twitter discussion with Kevin Garber, an “African entrepreneur in Australia and founder and CEO of” an online spellcheck service. As with Twitter conversations, this is actually from two threads that take some joining. It began based on one my response to journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen who said:

My testimony would have been: No government funding for news; culture war yahoos in Congress will just Mapplethorpe it

Jay was linking to a US Senate committee meeting about The Future of Journalism. Jay is referring to the battle over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the US over support of exhibitions of homoerotic photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. The NEA became a key front in the US Culture Wars.

Journalists in the US who look to the BBC model for funding journalism or want their own government bailout would be wise to remember the Culture Wars. They’ve loved covering it, but if they took state funding, they wouldn’t be just be covering it, they would become embroiled in it, even more than they already are. As I said to Jay on Twitter, People in US arguing for gov’t support for newspapers forget what a political football arts or public broadcast funding is.

Kevin said:

the key question is are newspapers a public good that can’t be addressed via normal supply/demand mechanisms …

To which I replied: “No, the question is about about journalism not about newspapers. Public funding for journalism is not a panacea. (says as ex-BBC)”.

I’ll agree with Kevin who said in a follow up comment that “smart capitalism doesn’t rely on mkt for everything”, but I’m not sure that the market is failing in terms of support for professional journalism. Rather, I think we’re in the midst of changing business models and that the dominant print model has given way to a multi-platform model with much greater diversity of revenue streams than the recession sensitive over-reliance on advertising. Newspaper and broadcast journalism are capital-intensive, industrial businesses that rely on advertising rates that were under threat before the recession and are unsustainable during the recession. The market has been sending clear signals to newspapers for 30 years that their business model was under threat, and those trends have only accelerated in the last five years. However, the Great Recession is a rupture in business as usual. Assumptions, business projections and companies are now being swept away as this credit bubble bursts.

Now, like the banking and auto industry, the newspaper industry is looking for a solution, and many journalists share Kevin Garber’s view that newspaper journalism is such an important public good that it merits public funds. You hear it when journalists argue that they play a role essential to democracy.

Even non-journalists make this argument. Suw was at Social Web Foo Camp recently at O’Reilly HQ in California, and she said that many people during a “design the future newspaper” pointed to the BBC as the model that could save journalism. Public service broadcasting is a funding model for journalism, but even in the UK, it hasn’t been extended to newspapers. And I doubt it will be. I think journalists also need to realise that such a model probably couldn’t roll back the job cuts that are hitting US newspapers. This shouldn’t be seen as some full employment act for journalists. Also, let’s get real. As an American, I think it’s safe to say that we would have to be living in some Star Trek-variety parallel universe to even contemplate significant public support in the US for a $200-plus annual licence fee payment to watch live broadcast television (either other-the-air or down a cable of some description). It ain’t gonna happen. Seriously. Also, while many other state broadcasters benefit from a licence fee, the UK is unique in the level of funding, and I think a poll of senior executives at the BBC would find most of them preparing for a dramatically reduced level of public funding in the future.

But apart from the political feasibility of a publicly funded journalism institution at the level of the BBC, let’s take a look at some of the cons stemming from public funding. And I say this coming from the point of view of having worked for Auntie for eight years. I love the BBC, and I was very proud to work there. However, public funding doesn’t come without its downsides (and strings attached, just ask the banks or Chrysler for that matter).

  1. What one administration giveth, another can taketh away. And the cuts might even come from an administration that you think will like you. Bill Clinton didn’t really like the press when he left, and Labour, while it might seem would have much more kinship with the BBC and public broadcasting, has not exactly been a supporter of the BBC. Just ask Director General Mark Thompson who thought he was going to get a much more generous licence fee settlement than he got.
  2. Your commercial competitors will spill tankers of ink, pay lobbyists and rant endlessly on air (cough, Fox News) to make sure that your funding will be as low as possible. Just ask the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the US. (Maybe you should take a page out of NPR’s books and start subscription drives.)
  3. You’ll have to subject new ideas to a ‘public value test‘ and make sure that it doesn’t distort the commercial market. In other words, you can be successful, but not too successful.
  4. Public funding won’t insulate you from job cuts. As I said, I worked for the BBC for eight years. There were cuts four out of the eight years I worked there. One year, the cuts were 18%, which was a blessing because the Head of New Media at the time, Ashley Highfield, had asked for 25%. And the cuts continue. This year, they are looking to find £400m of savings.

There are pros, of course, and the BBC is a great journalistic institution. But it’s not in the ruddy health that most American journalists assume it is. Like much of the media, it reached a high water mark in the early part of this decade, and it’s now swimming against the tide. This is not to say that public funding shouldn’t play a role in journalism, but it already does in the US in the form of NPR and public television. Also, based on the experience of Sweden, state support might help for while, but it’s not a long-term solution.

I’ll be interested to see what if anything comes out of the US Senate hearings today, but if it’s government support you want, be careful what you wish for.

UPDATE: A timely example of what I’m getting at. If journalists are anxious over a sense of powerlessness from market forces, it’s no different when the government can change your budget by fiat. See: (Conservative Party leader) Cameron to force vote to halt increase in BBC licence fee. He might not get his way now, but he might when he’s prime minister.