The Texas Tribune-Because Journalism Is a Public Good

In case you’ve had the good fortune to spend the Great Recession on a desert island, here’s a snippet from the Columbia Journalism Review that summarizes the media landscape to which you have returned:

American journalism is at a transformational moment, in which the era of dominant newspapers and influential network news divisions is rapidly giving way to one in which the gathering and distribution of news is more widely dispersed. As almost everyone knows, the economic foundation of the nation’s newspapers, long supported by advertising, is collapsing, and newspapers themselves, which have been the country’s chief source of independent reporting, are shrinking—literally. Fewer journalists are reporting less news in fewer pages, and the hegemony that near-monopoly metropolitan newspapers enjoyed during the last third of the twentieth century, even as their primary audience eroded, is ending.

I find this interesting primarily because of the source. The passage comes from a long report with an immodest title: “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.” The authors—Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson—are not exactly tattooed and pierced denizens of Netroots Nation but, rather, the former editor of the Washington Post and a Columbia J-School professor, respectively.

I do not agree with all of Downie’s and Schudson’s prescriptions for lifting America from our media malaise. But I heartily endorse what strikes me as their central premise:

The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone.  American society must take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment—as society has, at much greater expense, for public needs like education, health care, scientific advancement, and cultural preservation…

Which brings me to our own fledgling enterprise: The Texas Tribune.

In my day job, I’m a venture capitalist, so like much else in my life, this endeavor was born out of a quest for financial gain. In 2007, it struck my partners and me that the steady decline of the once-nearly-$60-billion American newspaper industry should present some financial opportunities for firms like ours. That turned out to be true—sort of—and our analysis of the newspaper business continues to inform our media investing strategy. But I couldn’t shake a personal conclusion that didn’t have anything to do with enriching myself:  that the abundance of public service journalism that prevailed in the period between the Kennedy and Bush 43 inaugurations was a historical accident, unlikely to ever repeat. Like the guy who realizes late in life that he’s been speaking prose all along, I was in my forties before I realized that I had grown up in a now-ended Golden Age.

I also concluded that capital-j Journalism—roughly the equivalent of Alex Jones’s “iron core” in his book, Losing the News—is a public good. The corollary to this conclusion is that the commercial press is too fragile for our democracy to rely on for all the news and information that we require to function as responsible citizens. It’s the ultimate case of bad things happening to good people. Most of the thousands of journalists who entered the business in the past few decades think of (or thought of) themselves as public servants. But the three revenue sources on which they relied to support their good work—subscriptions, classifieds, and display advertising—have all gone spectacularly awry due not just to a terrible economy,  but also to the arrival of cheaper alternatives.

Students of introductory microeconomics are taught that public goods have a number of characteristics, two of which are most relevant to Journalism. First, public goods are non-rivalrous: I can consume all I want without leaving any less for you. Second, market forces alone will not produce public goods in sufficient quantity (imagine a world in which indigent health care, national defense, and clean air were left entirely to the discipline of the market).

The provider of most public goods is government. But even though the U.S. ranks somewhere between Burkina Faso and Uranus in our per-capita federal spending on public media, Congress will not come rushing to the aid of Journalism anytime soon. There are simply too many competing priorities, and the deficit hawk in me recoils at proposing another one. Besides, obvious fox-in-the-henhouse issues arise—to mix animal metaphors—from government watchdogs funded out of government coffers.

So with both commercial and governmental fixes in serious question, maybe that leaves you and me. Well, me, anyway—I’m in for the proverbial penny and pound. You, I trust, will be won over in time by the good work of privately funded public media efforts like ours.

Thanks for your interest in The Texas Tribune. Seeing this day arrive is one of the true highlights of my life. I think we will succeed. And if I’m wrong, it won’t be for lack of effort.

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2 Responses to The Texas Tribune-Because Journalism Is a Public Good

  1. Thom Singer says:

    Congratulations on the launch of the Texas Tribune. And it was a GREAT party last night!

  2. […] appropriate quantities, and, individual consumption of journalism does not leave less for others (Thorton, 2009). In their book ‘The Death and Life of American Journalism,’ Robert McChesney and John […]

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