RALEIGH — The traditional business model for public-affairs journalism continues to falter. Print newsrooms are shrinking. Broadcast newsrooms are, too, or at least replacing expensive, veteran news reporters with young newscasters.
Some conservatives I know aren’t exactly broken up by the development. They consider it to be just desserts for decades of left-wing bias in the news media. I disagree with both premises – that the decline of public-affairs reporting is no big deal, and that it was caused by ideological bias.
I’m a former print reporter, but most of the journalism I practice these days consists of opinion columns for North Carolina media and magazine articles for national media. I also enjoy commenting on politics and public policy via blogs and social media. Still, while I don’t do much on-the-ground news reporting anymore, I recognize that without it I would have little to opine about or comment on.
“The Internet” is not a news generator. It is a news transmitter or aggregator. Most of the real news you’ll find online originated from a print newspaper, TV station, or wire service. The mainstream news media actually have a greater audience than ever before in their history. The problem isn’t drawing eyeballs. It’s drawing revenue.
The traditional business model faltered not because people stopped consuming the content it produced but because new technology served to unbundle what had been an all-or-nothing product. If you were looking to find a job, buy a house, or pick up a user car, you had to buy the entire newspaper to get to the valuable classifieds. In order to watch a “free” television program, you had to sit through advertising spots.
The Internet brought more efficient ways for consumers to get what they wanted. Instead of skimming through countless column inches of newsprint to find what they were looking for, they simply went on a website, typed in search terms, and got right to it. Instead of sitting through ads for products they had no interest in purchasing, viewers recorded the programs they wanted to watch and avoided the commercials if they chose.
These new tools were useful. Consumers were bound to employ them. And the unbundling process is certainly not limited to the mainstream media. Technology has empowered consumers to mix and match providers of a host of services. Even higher education is about to go through the same process, thanks to distance learning and new ways to certify work skills.
A downside of the Great Unbundling in media, however, is that the media’s revenue-generating services are no longer tethered to the public service of informing voters about their government. I am among a growing number of folks across the political spectrum who have come to believe that new models are necessary to help fill in the resulting information gaps. Some are starting low-cost web-based sites and portals supported by online ads. Others are starting higher-cost, reporter-heavy news organizations, supported by members and charitable donations, that deliver their content in partnership with print, broadcast, and online media.
Carolina Journal is one such enterprise. There are similar public-affairs reporting projects at several other think tanks in North Carolina and beyond. Having a public policy group, research institute, or educational institution host journalism enterprises is going to become more common over time. (The idea isn’t exactly new, anyway. Subtract the taxpayer subsidies, and you’ve got public broadcasting.)
The CJ staff is made up largely of journalists who used to work in mainstream print and broadcast journalism. There is a wealth of talent and experience among those who have or will soon be downsized from newsrooms. Giving them a place from which to continue practicing their craft is in the public interest as well as their own.
If you feel the same way, here’s a handy way to contribute to the cause.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.