Friday, February 27, 2009

The Price We Don't Pay

NewspaperThe 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.


  1. America mandates stupidity from Head Start to university diversity admissions, advertising, cults of professional management, and safety nets sundering deeds from personal responsibility. Welfare to the undeserving! Literacy and numeracy are crimes against the State.

    All informative media will yield to a daily two minute Central dictum of Official truth. Anybody who protests is guilty of treason (capital crime - medical disassembly for transplants). "Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." George Orwell, 1984.

  2. Today official truth is made by scoring high on digg. That might not be centralized, but still a dictum. But hey, we're all individuals.

  3. Правда, "The Truth", condensed version. Will you believe what you see or what you are told? Religion, string theory, SUSY, and Wall Street soured the latter (three of four from physcists).

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hi Bee,

    I think the mode of finance has little to do with it and that that there are as many cons as there are pros in public financing or endowment as there is in the current system. As much as Swenson and Schmidt would like to deny it, journalism does take sides and promotes a viewpoint other then just strictly assimilating and disseminating the facts. With the current system there is a variety of perspectives and I would tend to believe that government funding or endowment would only serve to restrict the range, rather then increase it. For example Canada's own CBC is a painful reminder of this.

    The popularity aspect has been with us since journalism beginnings with Benjamin Franklin first acknowledging that the public must be entertained by in large to become engaged, so he wrote his papers using satire and wit as devises to serve in this realization. As for advertizing he moved it up to the second and third pages, at a time when his contemporaries reserved this space for editorial along with the first page.

    I think it more a case that mainstream journalism has not yet adapted to the new media environment and thus their trouble rests more in this then anything else. Also, in the context of an ever shrinking world there is a lot of redundancies that exists in the system, which can and should be further filtered out. After all that is why organizations like Reuters got their start in the first place. That’s to ask Just how many does it take to properly report on a plane crash or any other disaster or tragedy?

    My take on the whole thing is that it all lays at the feet of the readers themselves, rather then the writers. Take for instance this blog with its average hits of a day of a thousand. Then look at the high quality content it has, the depth it possesses and the relevancy it holds. Yes I find it extremely interesting, along with some others, yet of the larger world we represent only a speck on the wall. No I’m afraid the Ophras with their three ring circuses not only more appeal to the world, yet unfortunately do so by reflecting it rather the shaping it.

    Although I never agreed with Ayn Rand’s philosophy she did write a story called The Fountainhead that rings with as much truth today as it did when it was written more then 60 years. It stressed the importance of the individual over that of the group and contended that newspapers primarily only wrote what people wanted to hear rather then what they needed to. Therefore I don’t see how funding methodology will have any great impact other then perhaps to have much written that is never read. Like they say you can lead horses to water yet you can’t make them drink. I feel that the best we can do is to find ways and means that will have more first recognize their thirst and convinced that begins with a better primary and formal education; otherwise as the other adage laments it's like throwing pearls before swine.



  6. Hi Phil,

    Certainly the question of financing is not the only issue, but I believe it to be central. You are of course right however, that other types of financing than for-profit have their drawbacks as well and thus need more consideration. I think that the solution would lie in a mix of all possibilities, some of which presently might not be realized at all.

    Indeed, journalism takes sides. I don't have a problem with that in general. What I have a problem with is if taking sides comes as alleged neutrality. Journalists carry a responsibility, and from my (limited) experience they are well aware of it. They are just often hindered in living out what they believe would best inform the public because of the need to create profit (please the editor, produce articles that sell well, sensations, scary stories, gossip).

    Either way, the point is the same as what my post was aiming at: there needs to be some way to reward quality, but the only measure which is currently present and used is that of popularity. Best,


  7. Hi Bee,

    “Either way, the point is the same as what my post was aiming at: there needs to be some way to reward quality, but the only measure which is currently present and used is that of popularity.”

    On this we certainly agree, as I have often wondered the same as to how this might be accomplished? One thing that has happened with the new media is that people can restrict their attention(s) only to their interests, while ignoring by avoiding everything else. So in the past if you bought a newspaper primarily for the sports section, financials, editorials or world news, more go online to satisfy this. For local news people turn to television and radio. Other efforts to bring politics by way of airing the proceedings of government have largely proved to be a failure; not so much because of lack of interest, yet largely because it has the shallowness and pettiness of those that represent us become even more painfully obvious.

    In in my own observations, no matter which way you slice it; things still come down to the individual and to ask how the general quality can be improved. That includes, like Brian in you Youtube bemoaned, having more thinking for themselves, which is still not enough without being exposed to the thoughts of others of quality (both of the past and the present), so ones considerations may be broadened.

    How then can we in this brave new world encourage people to become more rounded and as importantly always engaged? It may come down to ask how can we have more write down, express and share their thoughts, rather then only limiting themselves to reading others. One thing about this media that has been true since its beginning’s, is that the contributors are far outnumbered by the users, despite it having a two way potential. So I would ask all the lurkers out there, to add to the dialogue so that they are not simply pulled along with the tide, yet rather help to form the forces they are subjected to.



  8. A tax sheltered account in the Cayman Islands, with many millions in it - that is the American dream :) or should we call it nightmare?

  9. Campaign for Democratic Media

    This threatens Canada's free speech and economic competitiveness....Maybe it applies to other countries?

  10. Newspapers are still making money, generally on the order of from 10-20% of revenues is profit, but newspaper holding companies are losing money hand over fist. When newspaper consolidation made sense, chains bought large numbers of papers and held them at a book value based on their purchase price. Unfortunately, people are more pessimistic about the economy these days, and stock prices are lower, so the market value of a newspaper chain is much lower than its book value. When this happens, accountants basically collapse the corporate state. They call it impairment of goodwill or mark to market, and the company suddenly has a huge loss on its books, even though its operations are making money.

    As for the future of journalism, I think it is excellent. A reporter who knows his or her beat and can provide high quality reporting can make a living from subscriptions and advertising. I've been spending more money on online subscriptions, even as I have punted on newspapers, most magazines and cable television. The new media allow me to be more selective, and put my money where my eyeballs are.

    Unfortunately, the existing framework for news reporting is not a good fit with the current energy domain. Think of the internet as moving us along the curve of binding energy. The particles are still there, but the binding situation no longer makes sense.


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