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September 20, 2007

Thinking Clearly About The Media

In comments here, Craig Cipriano writes:

Every form of mass media in the US is supported by advertising. Radio, television, and newspapers all need advertisers to operate. So, relative to all other forms of media, the cost of surfing the internet for information is "free".

If HuffPo, Kos, FDL, C&L, Atrios, Digby, TomDispatch, ATR and all the others started charging subscription fees, it would deprive far too many people of their vital and diverse information and opinions.

While the 'net isn't free in the purest sense, it gives all of us unparalleled access to a wealth of knowledge we can't afford to get any other way.

Let's try to think clearly about this. Look at it this way:

The total 2006 advertising revenue for the Tribune Co.'s main papers (the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Newsday) was $3.26 billion. This money isn't conjured up out of thin air; it comes from the pockets of everyone who buys products advertised in those papers.

Now, how much of this goes to genuine, serious reporting? Ie, not shareholder profit, not executive salaries, not 3,000-word pieces on Suri Cruise in the LA Times Calendar section. Is it even one percent of that $3.26 billion—ie, $32.6 million? Let's be extremely generous and say it is.

What this means is that America can afford to pay for serious reporting. In fact, we can afford to pay 100 TIMES the cost of serious reporting.

So is there a better source than advertising? The other possibilities are government funding, subscriptions and donations. Getting money from the government is always a bad idea in the long run. And I agree a subscription model may have negatives that overwhelm the positives.

But what about donations? Imagine progressives organized themselves to start a news organization, available for free online and funded entirely by donations. And imagine the goal was to raise $32.6 million—one percent of the advertising revenue of one division of one media conglomerate. What would that pay for?

At a generous $100,000 per person in salaries and benefits, that pays for 250 reporters and editors with $7.6 million left over to run the web operation. 250 reporters and editors answerable not to advertisers and corporate owners, but solely to the people who read and fund them.

Are there even 250 reporters and editors now following national politics seriously in the entire United States? Let alone 250 reporters and editors with the freedom to say what they want?

The point is this: not only are we already paying for all the information we're getting, we're paying in an incredibly inefficient way, while also giving up almost total control to people who don't have our best interests at heart. It's by no means the case we can't afford to get information in any other way. It's just that we've failed to organize ourselves in our own best interests. We can change this, but only if we understand what's actually happening now.

Posted at September 20, 2007 12:37 PM | TrackBack

In the Corporate State, corporate media are State Media.

Posted by: konopelli/wgg at September 20, 2007 01:33 PM

Not a bad idea. If the reporting got crappy you could always not donate.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 20, 2007 01:38 PM

I like the BBC-style financing better than donations: TV licensing fees go directly to the BBC, the government isn't involved much.

With donations you'll get something like the NPR: news and commentary tailored for the people who tend to donate most, namely the middle/upper-middle class. Not terrible, yes, but still no objectivity, and not too aggressive.

Not clear, though, how to apply the 'licensing fees' mechanism to the print media.

Posted by: abb1 at September 20, 2007 01:58 PM

Your model works fine if all you want is a progressive-funded "news organization" staffed by credentialed reporters. A fine thing to have, but it's hard to see how your model would discover and make prominent the large number of _uncredentialed_-but-brilliant writers that have risen, over the last few years, to the top ranks of the progressive blog world. Many of whom have been funded in their efforts by advertising.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at September 20, 2007 03:15 PM

I think funding is only part of the problem. See this John Caruso post for details.

Posted by: Scruggs at September 20, 2007 03:29 PM

I don’t think that Jonathan is talking about a liberal news media. Liberal or conservative should not be an issue with unbiased reporting. The state of the news media as it is today hurts everyone conservative and liberal alike. I agree with Jonathan that the fundamental problem is where the money comes from, that seems clear enough to me.

Posted by: rob payne at September 20, 2007 04:13 PM

Also, yes there are some very good bloggers but for the most part bloggers don’t do actual go out and get the news reporting rather in many ways they are dependant on the news media that has actual reporters who do go out and get the stories.

Posted by: rob payne at September 20, 2007 04:22 PM


Great idea. What are we waiting for let's start raising some money. Can I help you raise money? If Blue America can raise hundreds of thousands for candidates we can do the same for a media operation.

Let's even be cautious. Let's start with a reachable target like 320,000. That will allow a small staff to work full time to scale it X10 to 3.2 mill. From that point on you have an operation! Seriously let's do this.

Posted by: smacfarl at September 20, 2007 04:39 PM

I'll agree that "liberal" or "conservative" media is largely spurious. Some really fabulous news sources are also relatively conservative - the WSJ, for example, or the Economist (more liberal, but still way to the right of me). Top-notch reporting is independent of ideology. The world is as it is, after all.

I think Jon's idea is tremendous, and if such an organisation (supported by donations) existed, it would be tremendous. But I disagree with this:
"What this means is that America can afford to pay for serious reporting. In fact, we can afford to pay 100 TIMES the cost of serious reporting."

I don't think this is true, except in the sense that SOMEONE in America can afford to pay this amount. Namely, large corporations, which control the balance of the wealth and influence. $32 million is not really very much, and plenty of people could afford to pay that out of pocket; but using a nickel-in-the-jar donation scheme, $32 million is a practically unreachable quantity. Obama and Clinton can raise these kinds of dollars because they are selling their souls, and will shortly be repaying in blood. I doubt an independent journalism effort would attract similar results.

Posted by: saurabh at September 20, 2007 05:03 PM

Here is an example of subscription news:

Posted by: cnmne at September 20, 2007 05:11 PM

Subscription and publicly funded media would be good for inflation. Down with marketing, down with prices!

And I guess I understand why the New Standard went belly up: none of you heard of it.

I dunno wtf is up with IWT/Real News. Over two years on and about all they do is occasionally release a Gore Vidal/Pepe Escobar interview. I feel like my contributions alone have been enough to pay for the one room studio and video phone necessary to accomplish that much.

Posted by: buermann at September 20, 2007 07:00 PM

There are a couple other positives for your model.

Advertising to promote newspapers and magazines ain't cheap.

Distributing dead tree products is also not cheap. Ever been a paperboy/girl? The costs go down to that level.

But the greatest advantage is a reporter can write something critical of (for example) GM without worrying about repercussions unless s/he drives a Chrysler.

Posted by: SPIIDERWEB™ at September 20, 2007 07:20 PM

hi , i am not political woman but i am visual artist, and my vision of your country is very invasive. i thinking in the fredom, your political gobervemnt in my country ,was hard and ,we had to support 20 year of dictator criminal , helping for the usa, cia , with the consequent death by the amrican money, you are the age sufient for you knows , i think in the freedom of the peoples and the liberty to choose, for bad is the will of the down, grettings from chile

Posted by: patricia at September 20, 2007 09:57 PM

patricia: I'm thinking you're right(correct).

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 20, 2007 10:12 PM

let's see. ideas here.

* web-based news organization. sounds like mostly text. audio stream built off text would be easy, though. my question: how is this different from throwing a lot of money at the AP?

* radio was mentioned before. i'm mentioning it for the first time because i think it's a critical link across economic lines.

* some way to finance high-traffic/high-worth blogs. i actually think this wouldn't work much different from freelancing — pitch the story and get financed — otherwise not. somebody keeping an eye out for chances to throw money at good journalism might be a good thing. easiest grant distribution job in the world would be finding matching bloggers, and one-time grants you didn't have to ask for would be pretty nice.

* the real news: i support this but i think it's a strange thing. people who get their news from television, i think, get it there because they're either watching a morning show and stumbling across headlines, or they're home and watching evening news before entertainment. none of those eyeballs will turn to net-based television, easily.

Posted by: hapa at September 21, 2007 02:30 AM

at the AP, or pacifica, or any other existing but constrained organization.

Posted by: hapa at September 21, 2007 02:32 AM

also, down with pinochet, down with kissinger, and down with every condor that doesn't fly

Posted by: hapa at September 21, 2007 02:37 AM

Democracy Now is not a news organization, it's a propaganda organization. I agree with most of their viewpoints, but Amy Goodman is a partisan demagogue, not a serious reporter. A news organization's first commitment should be to objective journalism - which, I'll admit, I'm still fresh-faced enough to believe in. Democracy Now's first commitment is to being progressive. I could never count on them to report accurately.

Posted by: saurabh at September 21, 2007 11:41 AM

"none of those eyeballs will turn to net-based television, easily"

The Real News' goal was to become a cable/satellite network. I expect they're still trying to get that put together. You would expect the bar to be lower for them than the utterly unfairly abused Al Jazeera, at least.

How did that work anyway?

BUSH ADMINISTRATION: Democracy in the middle east is our mission blah blah blah We will support a vision of a liberal democratic middle east free of the tyranny the US has tolerated for too long. ...

[...two months...]

BA: Holy shit, they have a tv news station already! Bomb them!

AL JAZEERA: Please don't bomb us.

BA: Bomb them again!

AJ: OK. How bout a channel in your precious mother tongue? Would that be less scary? We'll hire somebody from ABC, we know he's no Tom Brokaw and we're sorry. Also, please stop bombing us?

RIGHT WING: Unholy dhimmitudes be upon us! Forget France! Boycott Comcast! Boycott RCN!

Posted by: buermann at September 21, 2007 12:58 PM

Newspapers, namely the AP as an organization, blew it by not taking the Net seriously enough soon enough and therefore not charging Yahoo and other "content providers" high enough rates to recoup enough money.

If those rates had been charged, folks like Yahoo might well have instituted a "Yahoo Select," and, eventually, people would have come to accept it.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly at September 21, 2007 12:59 PM

Newspapers, namely the AP as an organization, blew it by not taking the Net seriously enough soon enough and therefore not charging Yahoo and other "content providers" high enough rates to recoup enough money.

If those rates had been charged, folks like Yahoo might well have instituted a "Yahoo Select," and, eventually, people would have come to accept it.

We haven't even mentioned the ongoing Darwinian escalation between Net ads and Net ad-blocking software. Unlike "passive" media like the newspaper and TV, ads definitely don't work if they're not even being seen.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly at September 21, 2007 01:00 PM

I like your blog and I feel we share sufficient common ground for a link to each others blogs to be mutually beneficial.If you agree to link then please contact me at 'An Unrepentant Communist'

on the commments page of the current post,and I will immediately link your blog to mine.Looking forward to hearing from you.
Gabriel in County Kerry Ireland

Posted by: gabriel at September 22, 2007 12:32 PM

Donations could work for such a website. I would welcome its creation and I hope website mentioned in the comments is successful. However, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden points out above, the advertising model has helped many of the brilliant bloggers I read every day become popular, despite its "inefficiency".
The fact is, I do understand what is happening now. Call me cynical, but advertisers and their dollars aren't simply going to fade away even if a significant percentage of websites can become self-sustaining without them. There is just too much money to be made and the increasing influence of the web will just spur them on.

Posted by: Craig Cipriano at September 22, 2007 10:14 PM