|News boxes in Merritt Island, Florida, in 2013, with USA TODAY’s designed to look like the TV set some thought was damaging its business. But WatchDog asks if the main threat to news publishing is technological change ... or a flawed business model. Photo: Rusty Clark via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).|
WatchDog Opinion: Free Press Nearly Impossible With Corporate Business Model
By Joseph A. Davis
The greatest threat to a free press in the United States may be the people who own it.
Students of journalism history can tell you that the “business model” of the news media has changed as often — and as profoundly — as the technology that moves information.
Sure, government censorship is awful. And yes, the First Amendment specifically mentions the “press” as the thing to which freedom is guaranteed. Enshrined in our mythology is the Philadelphia print shop opened by 22-year-old Ben Franklin, industriously printing a gazette between commercial jobs on a long-handled single-sheet screw press.
The destruction of publishing media by
technological change has been as constant
as the reinvention of publishing media.
We might well worry about what an “originalist” Supreme Court might think about desktop publishing, web publishing and whatever comes next. But the destruction of publishing media by technological change has been as constant as the reinvention of publishing media.
Only a few oldsters remember the days when newsfolk thought it was television that was killing newspapers. Gannett, which published USA TODAY, responded by inventing street coinboxes that looked like televisions … made some money … bought up local newspapers … set up the Newseum to glorify the U.S. news industry … then dumped it as a money-loser. Glory?
Gannett eventually sold itself to New Media Investment Group — which describes itself as a private equity firm, rather than as vulture capitalists. It went about the process of stripping Gannett’s empire for parts.
Newspapers as property
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” A.J. Liebling once wrote. The key word is “own.” Often the problem begins with the idea that a newspaper is a property that can be owned. Rather than a sacred trust … or a public good ... or a pillar of democracy … or the soul of a community … or a marketplace of ideas.
Today, as more and more newspapers are folding, we are starting to understand that it is actually the dominant business model that is destroying them.
You may think, if you want, that the villain is capitalism. You could as easily point the finger at corporate ownership or consolidation. Our favorite scapegoat is hedge funds managers. Think Alden Global Capital, and read McKay Coppins’ 2021 piece about it in The Atlantic, illustrated by a vulture rather than the eagle of American freedom. Alden is the one who chopped up the Chicago Tribune for bait. There are many others.
In the old days, mobs just burnt down newspaper offices. There was the case of Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist editor who had his Illinois newspaper burned by an angry pro-slavery mob in 1837 and was then shot to death. Or the case of brave African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, who wrote about lynching — and whose Memphis newspaper office was destroyed by an angry white mob in 1892. The mob did not shut her up. It was her mind and heart that was free, not the press.
Hedge fund managers can destroy
multiple newspapers with the stroke of a pen
... because they are not making a big enough profit.
Nowadays, hedge fund managers can destroy multiple newspapers with the stroke of a pen, not because they are losing money, but because they are not making a big enough profit.
It’s not just greed. Sometimes it’s the evolution of publication technology. Look at the carnage that Craigslist caused by replacing want ads (the bread and butter of old newspapers) with a web-based alternative. That sunk quite a few papers.
Karmically, Craig Newmark may have made up for it by empowering ordinary people, by funding all kinds of good journalism projects and by bankrolling the CUNY journalism school. (Full disclosure: Newmark Philanthropies has funded the WatchDog.)
The nonprofit model
The old model of local newspapers funded by ads and subscriptions was never perfect. We never saw much “independence” in newspapers funded by real estate ads — at least not when it came to coverage of, say, the local real estate industry.
A key alternative to corporate journalism is nonprofit journalism. It’s a big and sprawling category, but one way to grasp it is to look at the membership of the Institute for Nonprofit News. News outlets networked with the INN are so variegated that it’s hard to generalize about them.
It’s tempting to say that nonprofit outlets are
beating most mainstream media at journalism
that puts accountability and public good first.
But it’s tempting to say that nonprofit outlets are beating most mainstream media at journalism that puts accountability and public good first. (The New York Times is an exception.) Many nonprofits are intensely local — and many are about environment and energy.
We could brighten the luster of nonprofit journalism by pointing to outlets like the Center for Public Integrity (which was nonprofit before it was cool) or ProPublica (which hires great journalists and helps them do well). One of ProPublica’s stellar achievements is its Local Reporting Network, which is saving many existing local newsrooms via collaboration.
The challenge of sustainable funding
And funding. There’s the problem. Money does not grow on trees (especially if you want to write about them). Very often, that means philanthropies and foundations. Sometimes they have agendas and that affects what they fund.
And even the most enlightened and generous foundation funding does not last forever. Although many funders say their grants are seed money until outlets become self-sufficient, that doesn’t always happen.
So the key challenge is sustainable funding for nonprofit journalism (which includes journalism about sustainability). Ideally, that means moving beyond one-time grants to funding endowments that will supply steady and ongoing independent publication. No, we do not have the answer.
But we are compelled to notice that Jeff Bezos’ net worth is over $160 billion right now. He bought the Washington Post for $250 million. To him, it’s a bauble. What if some gazillionaire — whether Bezos, or Bloomberg, or Newmark, or Musk — sets up a permanent mechanism to fund nonprofit news?
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.