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You Said, ‘Why Public Broadcasting?’ I Still Say, ‘Why Not?’

It appears my column a few weeks ago on public broadcasting hit a few raw nerves. Despite my trying to stickhandle around the emotionally charged use of the word “socialism” there were a few comments saying, in essence, why should taxpayers have to support broadcasting when there were private and corporate donors willing to do so? Why would we follow a socialist approach to ensuring fair and responsible journalism? We are the land of the free and open market. Let’s just let it do its job.

One commenter suggested that if people want to support responsible journalism, let them become subscribers. Make it a Netflix-based model for journalism. That is one solution put forward in my friend John Marshall’s  new book, “Free is Bad.”

It’s not wrong. It’s certainly one approach. I would encourage everyone to subscribe to at least one news publication that still practices real journalism.

Another commenter suggested that as long as there are donors who believe in journalism and are willing to put their money where their mouth is, we can let them carry the load. That’s another approach. 

Case in point, ProPublica. 

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom funded by donations. The quality of its reporting has garnered it six Pulitzers, five Peabodys, three Emmys and a number of other awards. It can certainly be pointed to as a great example of high-quality reporting that doesn’t rely on advertising dollars. But ProPublica has been around since 2008 and it only has a little over 100 journalists on the payroll. I’m sure its principals would love to hire more. They just don’t have enough money. 

The problem here — the one that prompted my suggestion to consider public broadcasting as an alternative — is that both subscriber and donor-based approaches are like trying to kill the elephant in the room with a flyswatter. The economics are hopelessly imbalanced and just can’t work.

Journalism is in full-scale attrition because its revenue model is irretrievably broken. Here’s why it’s broken: The usual winner in competitions based on capitalism is what’s most popular, not what’s the best. It’s a race to the shallow end of the pool.

And that’s what’s happened to real news reporting. Staying shallow in an advertising-supported marketplace is the best way to ensure profitability. 

But even the shallow end needs some water; there needs to be some news to act as the raw material for opinion and analysis content. In the news business, that water is the overflow from the deep end. And someone — somewhere — has to keep refilling the deep end.

In a market that is determined to cling to free-market capitalism, no one is willing to invest in the type of journalism required to keep the deep end full. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, applied to journalism. There are too many taking, and no one is giving back. Incentives and required outcomes are not only not aligned, they are pointed in opposite directions. 

But, as my commenters noted, that is where subscriptions and donations can come in. Obviously, a subscriber-based model has worked very well for streaming services like Netflix. Why couldn’t the same be true for journalism? 

I don’t believe the same approach will work, for a few reasons. 

First, Netflix has the advantage of exclusivity. You have to subscribe to access their content. Journalism doesn’t work that way. Once a news story has broken, there is a whole downstream gaggle of news channels that will jump on it and endlessly spin and respin it with their own analysis and commentary.  

This respun content will always be more popular that the original story, because it’s been predigested to align with the target audience’s own beliefs and perspectives. As I’ve said before, when it comes to news, we have a junk food habit. And why would you buy broccoli when you can get a cheeseburger for free?

This exclusivity also gives Netflix the ability to program both for quality and popularity. For every “Queen’s Gambit,” there are dozens of “Tiger King’s” and other brain-food junk snacks. When all the money is being dumped into the same pool, it can fill both the shallow and deep ends at the same time.

But perhaps the biggest misconception about Netflix’s success is that it’s not determined if Netflix is, in fact, successful. It is still a model in transition and is still relying heavily on licensed content to prop up the profitability of its original programming. When it comes to successfully transitioning the majority of viewer streams to its own programming, the jury is still very much out, as this analysis notes.

There are more reasons why I don’t think a subscription model is the best answer to journalism attrition, but we’ll leave it there for now. 

But what about donor-based journalism, like that found on PBS affiliates or ProPublica? While I don’t doubt their intentions or the quality of the reporting, I do have issues with the scale. There are simply not enough donor dollars flowing into these organizations to fund the type of expensive journalism that we need. 

And these donor dollars are largely missing in local markets, where the attrition of true news reporting is progressing at an even faster rate. In the big picture — and to return to our previous analogy — this represents a mere trickle into the deep end. 

There are just some things that shouldn’t exist in a for-profit setting. The dynamics of capitalism and how it aligns incentive just don’t work for these examples. These things are almost always social obligations that we must have but that require a commitment that usually represents personal sacrifice. 

This is the basis of a social democracy where personal sacrifice is typically exacted through taxation. While you may not like it, taxation is still the best way we’ve found to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. 

We are now to the point where access to true and reliable information has become a social obligation. And much as we may not like it, we all need to sacrifice a little bit to make sure we don’t lose it forever.