Accountability journalism and the rebirth of cross-subsidies

This semester I’ve been attending, and really enjoying, Ethan Zuckerman’s Future of News and Participatory Media class — the fruits of which have already graced this blog. Today we covered “accountability journalism”, which offered a chance to review the opportunities and challenges facing investigative journalism in the internet era.

One of the focuses of discussion in-class was the evolution of cross-subsidized content in the last twenty years. In the print age, cross-subsidies — charging one group of customers more to reduce costs for another group — made a lot sense: newspapers were a package containing wide array of different content made for, and by, different people. Maybe you bought the Times for the crossword, or for the op-eds, or for the sports section — but most importantly you bought it, just as advertisers bought column space to sell you stuff.

As Clay Shirky notes in “Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable”, the 2008 piece which inspired our discussion, this basic economic deal continued undisrupted — and largely unnoticed — for decades. As Shirky notes, this had much to do with the fantastically high cost of physically printing a newspaper, creating “an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau.”

Thus audiences and advertisers alike were tied to the mast like Ulysses — until the siren song of digital disruption cut through. That story has already been told elsewhere, by Shirky and others, so I’ll skip ahead to the present, and note two models of cross-subsidy which have survived to this day.

The first — an example raised in class — is John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, on HBO’s slate. On the surface, nothing about Oliver’s model should work — as a weekly show, the relevance of its stories bottoms out fast in our fast-moving social media age. It was also quite a gamble to pitch an explanatory journalist show on a network far better known for the politics of Westeros. Yet Oliver’s show does a remarkable job of encouraging viewers to eat their news greens, without even realizing they’re doing so.

The second example is BuzzFeed, which has pioneered powerful investigative journalism right alongside its menagerie of anthropomorphized animals. Among BuzzFeed’s major recent scoops is the controversial release of a dossier ascribing myriad misdemeanors to President Donald Trump. We’ll put to one side the rights and wrongs of publishing this as BuzzFeed did — the only point here is that they did so because they have the financial might to survive the potential legal backlash. How? Through a pioneering use of native advertising — ads which don’t look much like ads, but instead take the form of content “promoted” by advertisers.

It’s great that the internet economy can still support investigative and explanatory journalism in these diverse forms. But inevitably this comes at a cost. Oliver, as well as Samantha Bee who’s doing similar things on TBS, are — and have to be — freakishly good at their jobs to make hard-hitting journalism entertaining and engaging enough to hold people’s attention — particularly those watching clips of the shows on social media, where far less intellectually or ethically demanding content is only a click away. And BuzzFeed’s native advertising calls into question the traditional delineation between “objective” news and adverts. It remains to be seen if the audience will mind, or even notice — and indeed, the more immersive promoted content is, the more subversive it is.

To return to the crux of the class, the impact of these trends on local journalism has been significant. Few local community newspapers enjoy a well-funded investigative desk or local TV channels a satirist-in-residence. So for all the stories of successful adaption of the news business to the internet economy, it’s important as we go forward to keep in mind the sobering perspective of coverage closer to home. In those cases, unless and until the national media descend on a story, it may be better to hope for a mask-wearing superhero.

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