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It’s time for nonprofit media organizations

Profit-journalism has failed to uphold news as a public good

If you listen hard these days, you’ll notice a distinct echo in conference rooms across the country where media companies have laid off staff. Even big media conglomerates are floundering amidst the funeral bells of their competitors. Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Mashable, Buzzfeed — all successful organizations that are slamming the brakes to reevaluate their profit models. If they’re not cutting losses, they are most certainly pushing teams to “get more creative” and prepare solutions to the growing atrophy.

Some of the obvious spectors are that,

  1. Print journalism is rapidly decaying, taking the old ways with it.
  2. Mobile and desktop is quickly consuming television, making programming more sensational and “real” to drive viewership.
  3. Ad-marketers are wavering under pressure of low viewership, causing prices to plummet.
  4. Organizations have turned their focus to exciting, bite-sized media.

Economics professor Julia Cagé has a proposition, published in her book Saving the Media, that media must turn towards a nonprofit structure for news to survive. She claims that as the “for-profit” media exhausts their monetization potential, they will turn in desperation to anyone willing to pay. Cagé notes that “if the media of the future must depend on wealthy investors for their financing, many dangers lie ahead.” Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post are a recent example of that phenomenon.

“There have never been as many information producers as there are today. Paradoxically, the media have never been in worse shape.”

Media democratization is killing commercial media

The sky is falling on print newspapers faster than you think

Some are still perplexed as to why even successful media are losing profits despite a media-enriched world that demands real-time information. The fact is there is so much information gathering and curating happening instantaneously that the added value of journalism just isn’t there anymore.

People who used to wait on an email or an RSS notification (or a newspaper before that) from the New York Times now sit on Twitter because they know it’ll take the NYT author at least 15 minutes to publish the exact analysis they could get in real-time. And media conglomerates have turned to monetizing as many parts of their digital publications as possible, creating a maze of pop-ups, ads, firewalls and additional smoke and mirrors that make consuming their content even more laborious. While mobile bandwidth has grown exponentially, ad bloat has kept at pace.

This isn’t to say that publications don’t provide a concrete, added value in their analysis. In fact, this is why the news is worth preserving. But what has happened in recent years to that news hits a dark chord.

Sensationalism and public good

Before Jeb Bush pulled out of the Republican presidential race, a friend of mine asked in frustration why Trump got so much air-time compared to Jeb, or all the others combined. To which I responded, “If I’m an underpaid journo, and I gotta pay my gas and electric this month, I’m not writing about boring Jeb Bush. I’m writing about Trump.

Donald Trump is the Death Rattle of TV News

That singular point may have foreshadowed the circus to come. But it’s now more a question of whether the cart is pulling the horse and the horse is dead. Luke Thompson notes the eagerness of broadcast media to enkindle Trump comes at the expense of their own personnel and with no long term revenue prospects. If entertainers like Trump are the only mechanism holding media organizations above water, then we’ll see that desperation play out in two disastrous ways: 1) sensationalism will negate the public good journalism seeks to uphold; and 2) media organizations will attempt to find other means of revenue, potentially seeking shareholders and going public to stave off losses.

But, as Cagé notes, going public isn’t a solution either:

It is useful to recall some mistakes of the past, starting with the experience of newspapers that have become publicly held corporations. Going public proved to be a mistake both for the newspapers themselves and for democracy. In the first five years after the Chicago Tribune went public, profits rose at the rate of 23 percent per year while gross revenue increased at a rate of only 9 percent; this performance was achieved by slashing expenditures drastically. The drive for higher profits affected not just newspapers but radio and television outlets as well (some television stations have operating margins above 50 percent), and the imperative to produce quality local news fell by the wayside.

Nonprofit status and the university

Cagé’s proposition is to restructure the media organization and establishment tax exempt status, creating a nonprofit media organization (NMO). This NMO would “enjoy the advantages of a foundation (stability of financing and ability to focus on information as a public good rather than on profit maximization at the expense of quality) and those of a joint-stock company (diversified ownership, replenishment of leadership ranks, and democratic decision-making, provided that the power of the largest shareholders is appropriately limited).”

I have my own hesitations about this model, but the writing's on the wall. Mainstream media and broadcast especially has sought to serve two masters, one of justice and one of greed — neither of which are symbiotic or promote the greater good of society.

“Like universities, news media provide a public good and deserve a special status.”

It seems the only answer is to remove the profit incentive and seek institutional funding, much like a university. However, as we have seen, even academia has its troubles adhering to free speech and fair-minded discussion. The cons of which would lead to an even greater polarization. However, it would almost certainly decrease the desire to promote sensational entertainment.

We already live in a world where we detest the liberal bent of MSNBC and the right-wing nutjob-ism of Fox News. Why couldn’t the Heritage Foundation or The Brookings Institution effectively compete in the day-to-day news discussion in a way that minimizes sensational absurdity and the need to compete for revenue?

Media organizations are in dire straits, tasked with being both arbiters of truth and jesters. If we can at least help thwart their roles as comedians and trolls, maybe we can revive news as a public good and maintain the gatekeepers of information and knowledge a little bit longer.

[If you’re interested in reading more, head to Nieman or read Cagé’s book, Saving the Media.]