Posted by: structureofnews | March 27, 2011

The Price Of Public Interest

How much is reporting in the public interest a public good that should be free – or at least cheap enough for average folks to afford it? Or is it simply important that it gets done, even if only an elite audience gets to read it first?  And if reporting is pitched for an elite audience, does that mean it necessarily isn’t in the public interest?

In an ideal world, of course, we get great reporting, it’s all in the public interest, and everyone gets it for free.  And a chicken in every pot.  But alas, this is the real world, and we’re getting to a point where the advertising-supported model that subsidized expensive reporting for Joe Public is fading away.  Foundations and other funders are helping non-profits pay for reporting, but that alone can’t sustain an entire journalistic ecosystem.  So that’s why subscription revenues are looking much more interesting to news organizations.

The New York Times, of course, is about to start its metered paywall, but those prices – while high for some – are well within the average person’s paycheck.  The real high-ticket prices come from products like Bloomberg Government, the news agency’s new service focused on government impact on business and industry, or Politico’s new premium service, both of which cost in the thousands of dollars a year.

Is that a good thing?  Well, it’s certainly a good thing for reporters who want jobs.  The Washington Post recently wrote about the boom in hiring in DC, and not just at premium-price services.  Government – at least the US government – is big news these days, and news executives figure there must be an audience for that.

The number of print, broadcast and digital journalists credentialed to cover Congress has been growing over the past five years and will exceed 6,000 this year, according to Senate press gallery director Joe Keenan, suggesting a ratio of roughly 11 news hacks to each member of Congress.

That many reporters chasing a key institution of government must be a good thing, right?  It depends on who you ask.  The Columbia Journalism Review welcomes the trend, but warily, noting that a lot of the new hires are going to premium services that Joe Average can’t afford.

Even though none of this new muscle was hired to write stories for the mainstream news consumer, hopefully those of us without the money or the interest in government minutiae to subscribe directly will still benefit from their work.

And that’s where much of a debate over new journalism models will likely rage as – or if – there’s a broader shift towards expensive, high-end, paid services.   For example, it’s one thing to push for more disclosure of public policy because you’ll be telling the world about it; it’s another if your readership is a few thousand lobbyists – or, for that matter, a single client.  In theory, that’s the difference between stories for the the mainstream media and bespoke research or private investigation.

On the other hand, there has always been specialized reporting for specialized audiences – and often much more knowledgeable reporting.  ESPN and Sports Illustrated have done it for years; so have Fortune, the Financial Times and Reuters.  Not to mention publications catering to stamp collectors, accountants, doctors or nuclear scientists.  CJR takes a less kindly view of this sort of work, at least as it relates to DC:

When reporting so close to the ground, it’s tough to resist cozying up to friendly leakers in an expense-account foxhole. Aggressive stories that investigate potential abuses of power by those special interests aren’t likely to top many of these story lists. It’s also difficult to manage cynicism; rarely will these journalists be asked to report out how policy proposals affect real people’s lives.

That may be true.  But that’s true of any journalist who has to go back regularly to a source, not just one that works for a specialized service.  No one likes to have to face someone they’ve just called a thief or an idiot in print.  That takes guts.  And more importantly, iron-clad reporting.  But if the alternative is to have reporters who parachute in, write a hard story and never come back – that’s not really a good solution, either.  Not that CJR is suggesting that; but the implication that there’s some idealized world where reporters writing for a broad audience somehow don’t get captured by sources isn’t borne out by reality either.

And in fact, Bloomberg, which is already a specialized, high-price service, does do a lot of public service reporting – and they post much that on publicly-accessible sites.   Any organization that wants more influence will want to get its information out to a broader public.

Still, this is something journalism – and public policy around journalism – will have to grapple with as the advertising-subsidized world fades away.   In the old days – even before there was free news on the web, and people had to shell out a buck (or a quarter) for a copy of the paper – you could argue that a newspaper had some moral right to demand information from government, because it was disseminating it to the public at large; that it was the public’s proxy.  Does a $10,000-a-year newsletter with a subscriber list in the hundreds have the same right? Does it matter if eventually the information leaks out to the public at large?

And equally the CJR question: Does writing for a specialized audience translate into a less public service-oriented outlook?   I’d argue not.  Or at least, not any more than normal reporting.  But it’s going to be something we’ll be debating.

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Responses

  1. [...] brings up a debate we’ll have to have sooner or later.  At what price point is news “cheap enough” [...]


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