PM Pick

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image