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Can journalism live without ads?

Edward Wasserman

by Edward Wasserman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Beneath the somber tales of shrinking revenues and staff cuts is an even more somber reality about the news business: The nearly 2-century-old marriage between consumer advertising and journalism is on the rocks.

In the United States the union dates from the advent of the penny press in the 1830s, when newspaper owners realized that by slashing what they charged readers they could send their circulations soaring and get rich off advertising sales. News found a durable source of funding, and manufacturers hitched a ride into the homes of the burgeoning masses of American consumers.

That era is now ending, not because the public no longer needs news or because people mistrust news any more than they always have - but because new technologies are churning out better ways to reach customers who are shopping for cars, jobs or homes.

The result is a calamity for the news business. Newspapers get the greatest attention, but all news media are being shaken hard, and the luxuriant growth of online news initiatives shouldn't be mistaken for a rebirth: Most of those sites are still burning through their start-up money and haven't figured out how to sustain themselves except by praying to advertisers who, it seems plain, will never be back with anything like the money they once lavished on news.

And now? One benefit of the current crisis is that alternatives to ad support are being floated, something that hasn't happened here since the campaign for public radio was defeated by the forces of commercialization in the 1930s.

Foundation funding is a hot topic, especially after a rich California couple pledged $10 million a year last fall for an investigative journalism project, Pro Publica, to be staffed by a corps of top reporters and editors.

A recent American Journalism Review article surveyed journalism support from philanthropies, rich people with causes and foundations, some tied to particular industries from health care to farming to educational reform.

In some respects such patronage is hugely appealing, though as AJR suggests the dangers to editorial independence can be no less serious than with advertising support: Indeed, advertisers could be sublimely indifferent to editorial content as long as it was drawing a crowd they could sell to (and wasn't about them). But foundations and public-minded plutocrats are less bashful about their preferences and convictions, and some philanthropies may even be obligated to ensure their money advances certain policy goals.

Public financing, too, long banished from polite conversation, is getting a new airing. An article last fall in the Columbia Journalism Review dusted off the topic and noted that in other countries, stand-alone systems of automatic funding have kept dying newspapers alive and made the press even feistier - more, not less, inclined to watchdog governments.

The knee-jerk notion that the First Amendment forbids public support rests on a misreading of our own history of media subsidies, from creation of the postal system to invention of the Internet. Mechanisms could be devised to make funding automatic - fees tacked onto Internet hookup charges, for instance, like the license fees on TVs that British viewers pay to support their BBC - and insulate news producers from political meddling.

But even if editorial noninterference were ensured, any public support scheme would still crash into a giant problem: Who gets the money? It's the Internet age. A great many entities and individuals have leapt into fact-gathering and topical commentary in a magnificent, worldwide surge of communicative enfranchisement. Shouldn't they get compensated, too?

Maybe the solution isn't to escape the market, but to empower it. Modern computing offers unparalleled capacities to track and calculate. Imagine a vast menu of news and commentary offered to you ad-free for pennies per item, the charges micro-billed, added up and presented like a utility bill at month's end. The money that journalism providers got would depend on their audience.

Plus, if you uploaded comment or video in response, to the degree it was downloaded by others you'd get credited for it - compensated like any other provider.

Illogical and impractical? Maybe. Or maybe it would free journalism from an advertising dependency that's in its death throes anyway, move us beyond the obsolescent distinction between producer and consumer and create new opportunities for independence and enterprise.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

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