The awareness of the implausibility of a commercial solution was made more daunting by a growing recognition of how our news media has been unraveling in this era while we were waiting for the Internet and entrepreneurs to solve our problems. There will be quite a bit of something called “news” in the coming years, but there will not be very much of what we once called journalism. The source of that news will be public relations, with political and economic elites framing and guiding the debates, be they local or national. Today, the ratio of public relations people to working journalists is close to 4-to-1; only 30 years ago, it was just over 1-to-1. In just three or four years, at present rates, the ratio of people paid to surreptitiously shape the news for their corporate and government clients to that of working journalists covering the news will be as high as 6-to-1 or 7-to-1. If we do nothing we are likely to enter a golden age of even more mindless sensationalism and spin and propaganda masquerading as “news.” It is awfully hard to see how we make a graceful transition, or even an ungraceful one, from that living hell to the promised land of high-quality ubiquitous commercial Internet journalism one or two or three decades from now.
The cold reality is that we will have private news media supported by advertising in the coming generations, but such media will only do a portion of what they once did, probably a small portion. While government policies can strive to increase the amount of successful commercial news media that will exist, there is going to be an upper limit to how much the market will generate. And what the market will support will likely be news aimed at the more affluent sector of the population, those that can afford subscription prices or appeal to those advertisers who remain. Left alone, such developments could accentuate and reify the information inequality that Thomas Jefferson emphatically argued was antithetical to a genuine free press in a self-governing society.
The starting point for exiting this dead-end street is the recognition that journalism is best understood as increasingly having the attributes of a public good, not a private good. It is like military defense, physical infrastructure, education, public health and basic research in that regard. It is something society requires, and people want, but the market cannot generate in sufficient quantity or quality. It requires government leadership to exist. There may be an important role for the private sector, but with public goods the government plays quarterback or the game never starts.
The public good nature of journalism was masked for the past century by the emergence of advertising to provide anywhere from 60-100 percent of the revenues for major news media. It sure looked like the market would produce plenty of profitable journalism. Regardless of what we might think of the effects of commercialism and private control upon the content of news —and this is an area of intense scholarly study and debate— it certainly seemed like the market would produce enough of it to meet our needs. Those days, as we all know, are over. In the digital era there will be some advertising revenue to support journalism, but much less than in the past. Advertisers now have innumerable new ways to accomplish their commercial goals, and are no longer tethered to news media.
Likewise, the Internet emphasizes the public good aspect of journalism because it makes the content easily accessible online with virtually no marginal cost. Unlike a private good, if I access a news story it does not mean you cannot access the exact same news story and it does not undermine my consumption if you do so, or increases the producer’s costs. That is unlike a traditional private good, like a hamburger or a pair of socks. If I have a hamburger, you cannot consume the same hamburger without my losing my satisfaction in consuming said hamburger. With news stories online, on the other hand, if anything it increases my enjoyment knowing others are sharing the same story, and I have nothing to lose by making it available to them. And it costs nothing to make the story available to others. This is a recipe for disaster for traditional news media business models.
In short, fitting a commercial news media system into the digital world is an unnatural fit, which is why savvy investors are jumping ship. They would be irrational to do otherwise.