Seeking a brave new model for journalism

Photo: UNclimatechange/flickr

In a way it's a pity that the crisis of journalism, especially for newspapers, is such an existential one, i.e., will they even survive? Existential crises put off other questions -- how are we doing? How can we improve? Etc. But there you go: To be or not to be. That is the only question.

Journalism's survival is threatened because of the economic model it's based on: ad revenue (plus the selling price of the paper.) It's a strange model. When you buy a book or banana you expect to pay full price. When you bought a paper, you paid a fraction of cost and advertisers picked up the rest.

Yet it was one of history's accidents. If you look at papers from the 1800s, like Toronto's Colonial Advocate, it's solid print: there are no ads. Readers paid full cost.

In the early 1900s, press barons, such as Hearst and Pulitzer, increased ads massively and readers got used to being heavily subsidized. When radio and TV came along, there was no choice: you couldn't sell programs that were on "the air" so ads paid the entire freight.

When the Internet arose 25 years ago, papers could have stuck with a paying model, via paywalls or subscriptions. But by then everyone was used to the "free" model of radio/TV -- and the Internet was on a screen. So the ads on papers' sites were expected to cover their full costs. But behemoths such as Google and Facebook gradually swallowed most ads -- they're now at 80 per cent to 90 per cent -- and papers languish as ad revenues don't suffice.

What's stunning is there was no inherent connection. Ads and news just happened to get welded at the hip. It was a historical accident. There could've been other models: readers could have paid full costs; or public subsidies could have been applied. You'd simply have had to declare journalism an essential national thing, like highways or the armed forces.

In a report titled The Shattered Mirror issued in January, veteran journalist Ed Greenspon confronted the crisis and proposed what look like fairly timid solutions. He doesn't advocate tax tricks to restore the golden age of ad revenues. Instead he suggests levying a charge on ad-heavy Internet platforms like Facebook and Google. This would go into a fund that distributes money to journalistic institutions to help them weather the storm and pay for more actual journalism.

The amounts would be substantial, though nothing like the great old days. It's a bit like funds that support Canadian film production or even Canada Council grants for artists.

Greenspon tries to avoid the odium of hefty government involvement (and the lash of free market zealots) but there's really no way around it: this is about active public policy to save a crucial democratic resource: journalism.

Attacks have even come from Star columnists Chantal Hebert and Paul Wells, wary of political controls. I think this is naïve on their part. Public policy has long been present in this area: advertising deductions, postal subsidies, Canadian content rules, the CBC itself. Journalism's virginity vanished awhile back.

It's also naïve to think advertising didn't wield a heavy hand on its own. During the 1900s in Toronto, papers never covered union drives at Eaton's because it was their biggest daily advertiser. The first nightly news show in the U.S. was Camel News Caravan. Do you really think that had no effect on coverage of lung cancer research? You're always fighting one devil or another.

So I'd prefer not to think of Greenspon as wimping out in the face of Google and Facebook -- though he does call them "monsters," referencing their size, mostly. Other nations, he notes, have successfully levied a charge on them to help keep the journalistic home fires burning. But this limited approach may be far-sighted in spite of itself, since it implies reaching toward a new model of journalism that divorces it from its peculiar dependence on ads.

Whatever that model eventually is, it could hardly be odder than the match between journalism with its solemn civic duties and commitment to truth on one hand, and ads with their crass devotion to piling up profits while manipulating citizens on the other.

Journalism would no longer be -- or at least not primarily -- what a former Globe and Mail publisher defined it as not long ago: a matter of selling readers to advertisers. What brave new world might lie beyond?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: UNclimatechange/flickr

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