The Internet has brought severe challenges for journalism, and especially for science journalism. The vast majority of private websites are financed through advertisements, which is impossible to miss. Exceptions to this are publicly funded governmental or educational institutions, and rare cases that are financed through donations like Wikipedia. Advertisements are more profitable the more visitors a website has, which thus puts a major incentive on popularity. Though this incentive has always been present, it is today much more pronounced than with a clientele of subscribers, and the breathlessness of infotainment with an emphasis on novelty contributes its part. The trend of print newspapers has thus been to cut back on the length of reports, to make them increasingly simplistic, and to provide additional web content in an effort to adapt to the changing demands of the customers.
This however has not sufficed to keep newspapers financially healthy. Reporting on results of a recent survey among newspaper executives, researchers on the Project for Excellence in Journalism summarize that the newspaper of today “has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects”. Well over half (59%) of the 259 newspapers participating in the survey have reduced full-time newsroom staff over the past three years, mainly because of financial pressures. Roughly the same number (61%) also reported a decrease in their space available for stories. 46% of survey respondents said that the resources devoted to cover international affairs dropped within the last three years, 41% report a drop for national politics, and 24% for science reporting.
While this development is of general concern, it is particularly so for scientific reporting, where attention to detail, background knowledge, and accuracy are essential. Quality of information is relevant for citizens to make decisions, and it should thus be in our prime interest. The problem underlying this erosion of newspapers substance (both in budget and content) is with the link between personal interests and the resulting overall trend, a classical case of public choice. We have gotten used to information being provided for free, and to all the advantages and amenities connected to it. We consider it a public service. If this information was provided for the actual coast it causes, likely many people would not pay this price, thus eroding the basis of our democracies. Free information is desirable to keep our societies functioning well. The problem is, its provision is done by people who need to eat and sleep. Consequentially, they should be financed as providers of public service, either by governmental subsidies, or as tax-free non-profit organizations.
This is a discussion which is overdue, I was thus glad to see Swensen and Schmidt recently picked up the question of alternative financing models in their recent NYT article News You Can Endow.
Related: Do we need science journalists?, When capitalism fails and Fact or fiction.