Jack Shafer: Concerned About My Bank Balance, and Knows My Inner Motivations. Where Have You Been All My Life?

The whole spiel really is all a little touching, and quite impressive–especially the psychoanalysis part.  What it isn’t is new.  Or maybe commercial media pundits have been relieved of the burden of editors who say things like, “wait, haven’t I seen that before?  And before.  And before?”  Like about a zillion times since David Swensen touched off this whole debate in January (which frankly seems like it was in the Pleistocene)?

Ok, from the top.  Shafer has two arguments.

The first is that anyone who funds this stuff must want something.  That is true.  I think most of us want quality journalism.  Just like I give money to Ballet Austin because I like to see artistic athleticism and pretty women.  The second is that news publications should attract readers.  Wait, let me get a pen.  Need to ….write….that one….down.

But seriously, where Shafer and I really come apart is here:

But the most successful, most heavily decorated, and longest-lived news outlets in the American journalism have been overtly commercial.

First of all, that’s precisely not true.  Both WaPo and NYT are only sort of overtly commercial, in the sense that in each case a family controls the vote, and so any informed buyer of either stock can see a big, fat, caveat emptor stenciled on the certificate.  And even if it were true, c’mon:  if the past were necessarily prologue, why would all these things be going belly-up? 

There is here an interesting debate about cause and effect.  Shafer seems to be arguing that only enterprises focused on the creation of shareholder wealth can produce good journalism.  My argument is that the forty years between Kennedy and Clinton were an accident of economic and demographic history, resulting in a temporary but highly profitable industry structure for the papers that dominated their markets.  Great journalism thrived in a relatively monopolistic industry structure, because there was plenty to go around for editors and shareholders (God and Mammon, again).   

Newsrooms of  this halcyon era, untroubled by (and sometimes in separate evelvator banks from) the boys from ad sales, actually operated far more like nonprofits than they do today.   But quality journalism remained the tail on the economic dog of monopoly (Philip Meyer’s labored attempts at proving the opposite notwithstanding).   A monopolistic industry structure persisted as long as the cost to replicate a production and distribution infrastructure remained high.   Enter near universal broadband access; marginal distribution costs trend toward zero, and suddently the news industry is super-fragmented, trending toward what economists call “perfect competition.”  Exit monopoly profits, and exit the luxury that was Watergate-era public interest journalism.

But, never mind all that.  I don’t think Jack Shafer is interested in much of a serious debate.  But since he is convinced that my pocket has been picked of my silly money, all the more reason to visit texastribune.org and become a founding member.  Better yet, do it in Jack’s name!

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9 Responses to Jack Shafer: Concerned About My Bank Balance, and Knows My Inner Motivations. Where Have You Been All My Life?

  1. Nick Martin says:

    I usually love Jack Shafer, but the logic here is pretty incredible. At one point, he seems to be saying that advertising money is more pure than money from donors. And yet, what does he have to back it up? More opinions.

    I’d like to point out, too, that of the two business models, only one requires the business to be transparent about its finances.

  2. I’m a founding member of the Texas Tribune for two reasons. 1) I think this experiment might just be the future of journalism; and 2) I think Ross Ramsey is great.

    Ok, probably more about Ramsey than reason 1. 🙂

  3. Paul Janowitz says:

    There is another “nonprofit” form of media and journalism happening as well – social media. Blogging, posting, commenting, sharing – the cost of entry to create, publish and share has gone to almost 0 leaving little barrier.

    These new micro-channels have created a million different niche markets just like cable TV did years ago. This is good and bad. Human behavior and research shows we surround ourselves with people, ideas and sources that reinforce our own beliefs. So, this new social journalism can cause deeper factions and less “collective action” or good on some levels. However, it also allows for deeper information and action if exposure goes beyond a walled garden. This is where I think nonprofit journalism can fill a large void – not threatened by this business model, strong reporting base and broad distribution model. There are always agendas to be served, but transparency seems a bit more clear on the nonprofit side as well.

  4. Skeptic says:

    First of all, to Nick’s point, the advertisers are already getting something in return for their investment with the ads. But to a bigger point: for a generation the reporters you have hired have written ad nauseum about the politicians who take rich guy contributions, and whether that has impacted decision-making. Now we are to turn a blind eye to the skeptical, and sometimes cynical, connotation of those stories when it involved a non-profit, so-called non-ideological press start-up that takes contributions? And no one should be able to ask the same question of them that they have asked of politicians: whether they are influenced by their givers in the context of the job they perform.

    Consider me a skeptic until proven wrong.

  5. Erik says:

    I think that Shafer misses what CURRENTLY is going on but I do think there is an important underlying threat to the model – that the percentage of foundations interested in solely “good journalims” – which in part is defined by following the story whereever it leads – is dwarfed by the foundation money from donors who have a DEFINATE view of how things should be and thus what stories they want to see/fund. Nice that the founders of Voice or Texas Tribune are generously giving seed money. But consider (and I apologize for picking just on the Left, the Right will be equally guilty) – in 2007 the Tides Foundation made $97 MILLION in grants. Now the current answer seems to be “well we will just tell them upfront that they get no say”. But that is all nice sounding jargon for the board. Real journalists are hired and they can’t help notice (indeed pulling 990s make it easily discoverable) who is funding the operation at what percentage. Self interest is a powerful editor.

    But suppose you navigate through that problem. If non-profit journalism IS sucessful expect the “politically motivated” foundations to take notice and themselves set up operations that look and feel like journalism but which come with a slant (a decent example of this is Media Matters). So the brand will get “cheapened” and, perhaps most discouraging, will you be able to hold a donor base when the space has become much more partisan.

    This is not a condemnation of the model. I have the pleasure to enjoy one of the best of these resources (VSD). But I believe that long-term the model hasn’t adequately struggled with the reality of modern day foundation funding and what actually motivates the donors with the biggest checkbooks.

    The parallel that is worth considering is to think hard about what occured in the non-profit think tank world. What we have seen over the past 20 years has been a HUGE amount of money that was washed into that area. But little in way of high-quality research output. One reason, I believe, is that the foundation money that came in was never designed to honestly answer questions but rather support, both in respect to output as well as in respect to capacity, partisan efforts. The danger for the new journalistic model is that it will be similarly influenced by donors with higher priority goals than tracking down stories and reporting “the facts”.

  6. […] Tribune’s primary benefactor, Thornton, responds to Shafer’s column by saying there’s a reason why philanthropists like him are writing big checks for journalistic ventures: “I think most […]

  7. […] I’m pretty much over it, although of course I couldn’t resist writing my own snarky response.   I’ll bet even Warren Hellman is succeeding in taking it one day at a time after being so […]

  8. […] John Thornton, founder of Texas Tribune, also mentioned in Shafer’s piece, and I can say that he certainly does. Why would he plunk down $1 million of his own money to create his own vanity press? If […]

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