Tuned In

If the Journalism Business Fails, Who Pays for Journalism?

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You can’t open a newspaper—or read a newsmagazine website—these days without seeing a report wondering if X, Y or Z “can save journalism.” Maybe that’s the wrong question. 

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that nothing saves journalism. “Journalism,” that is, as a profession and as currently constructed: a full-time job paid for by newsgathering entities through a combination of subscriptions and advertising.

[Update: Some commenters at Romenesko argue this is a narrow definition of journalism. Agreed. That’s the point. It is the narrow definition implicit in all those articles about “Will _____ save journalism?” But. However you do define journalism—a term I generally hate anyway but have no substitute coinage for—it will still be practiced by human beings who need to pay rent and purchase food. Where will they get that money? And thus, how will the activity of journalism be enabled, if not by the presently-constituated profession of “journalism”? Especially if “unnamed model that someone else will invent later” is not an allowable answer? That’s the question of this post.]

Let’s assume—with maybe a rare few exceptions—that just goes away. Let’s assume that you can improve journalism as much as you want, take advantage of the possibilities of new media as much as you want, but in general, people still simply do not want to pay for it, and it still remains worth far less to advertisers than it used to be. Let’s assume newspapers fold en masse, and going online-only does not save enough money to pay people to do journalism as their chief source of income. That’s gone. 

What replaces it? And by that, I mean, who pays for what replaces it? 

Here are a few thoughts. This is entirely thinking out loud. I’m not endorsing or decrying any of the below options. I’m not saying they would be as good as, better than, or worse than, what we have now. But anybody who cares about journalism should at least be taking a cold-eyed, honest look at them, and thinking about what they would mean:

* Day jobs. Think of this as the literary-fiction / poetry model. A lucky few, best-selling creative writers right now are able to support themselves through their work. The rest work in other fields, teach in MFA programs (basically support programs for authors) or rely on other external sources of support. (William Carlos Williams was a doctor; Wallace Stevens sold insurance.) Those who stick with it do it because they’re passionate, but they don’t expect ever to make a living at it. If journalism is not a revenue producer, much of it could become like freelancing—but freelancing you can’t live off of. 

* Crowdsourcing. This is a variation on the “day job” possibility, except that rather than a single person producing journalism “on spec,” some kinds of news are drawn from amateur reports—Twitter, Flickr, etc., etc.—and gathered/moderated/curated/encouraged by editors, “community managers” or what have you. (The upshot of both this and the “day job” model might be that you may make a living at filtering or managing content, but not so much by creating it—at least, not directly, not in the old-fashioned sense.) 

* Interested parties. If for-profit companies can’t make a business out of reporting on issues, non-for-profits may hire more people to write and blog on their particular areas of policy interest. Matt Yglesias—who himself blogs politics for the Center for American Progress thinktank Center for American Progress Action Fund—wrote about this possibility last week. Tim Cavanaugh of Reason magazine argues that public-relations professionals could start doing more of the work of investigative reporters. 

* Nonprofit foundations. There’s increasing talk about trying to run news institutions funded, NPR-style, by donations or deep-pocketed sugar daddies. In practice, of course, this could be just another variation on “interested parties,” above, depending how many people are willing to spend a lot of money on journalism with no agenda. (Insert discussion about whether there is such a thing here.) 

* Product placements and sponsorships. Last week we saw Starbucks paying eight figures to “brew” MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Former CNN reporter Miles O’Brien is seeking aerospace companies to sponsor his online reporting about aviation, according to the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast and other websites are using branded content or “sponsored stories.” 

* The business is the news outlet. But why bother contracting the work out by “sponsoring” other people’s news organizations? If journalism increasingly does not work as a standalone business entity, could it be a loss leader for a business that makes money by selling stuff? Business, of course, already produce a lot of what could be called “service journalism” online. If the market can’t support, say, standalone parenting magazines or websites, might Proctor & Gamble—which sells a lot of stuff to parents—want to produce its own? 

* The news outlet is the business. One of my favorite local-news outlets in Brooklyn is Brownstoner, which covers the borough’s events, news and real-estate market with a granularity the New York Times can’t. As a business, it doesn’t just rely on standard advertising; its founder is a principal in Brooklyn Flea, a popular and growing antiques, crafts, etc. market in Fort Greene. If journalism itself doesn’t pay for journalism, will it become a branding tool to establish businesses that sell things people will pay for? 

* Experts become journalists, instead of vice versa. We already have examples in mainstream journalism of doctors, lawyers and other professionals developing second careers as reporters and analysts on their own fields. (Sanjay Gupta and Jeffrey Toobin, for instance.) If beat reporting dwindles as a way to make a living, this could become the norm. Already, the Huffington Post relies heavily on free blogs by people—authors and other authorities—using them as a calling card to build their brands in other fields. 

[Update: Via Twitter, Josh Young offers his idea—and Mitch Ratcliffe’s—of paying for someone’s work in exchange for greater access to and interaction with the journalist. See also Firedoglake’s effort to raise contributions to fund Marcy Wheeler’s investigative reporting.]

I guess all these ideas boil down to one principle: if journalism—reporting, analysis, communicating, whatever you want to call it—takes time, then someone will have to either pay for or donate that time. Any other thoughts? What do we gain from these possibilities? What do we lose?