One of the only glimmers of hope in an otherwise dismal year has been the surge of new subscriptions and donations to media organizations, both big for-profits (The New York Times, The Washington Post) and smaller nonprofits (Mother Jones, ProPublica). It may have been the prospect of four or more years under Trump that has finally convinced some people that journalism is something worth paying for. I hope, though, that in 2017 we go a step further and acknowledge that high-quality, high-cost, and crucially high-impact journalism is a cultural form worthy of our support and protection and not a commercial product in search of a business model.
During the great aberration of the 20th century, it was easy to confuse the two because so many media companies were able to subsidize their journalism with adjacent businesses, primarily advertising. (It’s worth noting that in the 21st century, the ad industry, whether it’s tied to journalism or not, is in as much disarray as the news business.) Attempts to find a new money-making activity with which to pair journalism have created new industries (content marketing, for one) but have had limited success in creating journalism operations that can sustain their mission. Cost centers rarely win resource disputes against revenue generators.
The post-election boom of subscriptions and contributions will lead the publications that haven’t already tried asking readers for support to do so, and I hope they find success. But it will not be enough to restore the robust daily local coverage and the thousands of journalists who once monitored statehouses, planning commissions, and police departments — to name just one vast swath of journalism that’s already been lost. In the decade between 2004 and 2014, newspapers saw $30 billion of print ad revenue disappear while their online advertising only increased by $2 billion. To make up that $28 billion difference, every single one of America’s 126 million U.S. households would need to shell out $222 every year for digital subscriptions to news organizations. To put that into perspective, Netflix, which offers a historically much easier to sell product — movies and TV shows — has an annual revenue per subscriber of about $100.
When a society places a higher value on a cultural form than what it can fetch on the open market, the traditional way to keep it vibrant and strong is through government and/or philanthropical support. There’s little hope of a Trump presidency funding a BBC-like national journalism operation — indeed it might be frightening if he did — so I hope wealthy individuals, private foundations, and other major donors come to understand that, not unlike opera and modern art, for journalism to have a chance to maintain its place in our shared civic life, it must be supported by those who value it the most and have the best opportunity to make a difference.
Gabriel Snyder is a former top editor at The New Republic, The Atlantic Wire, Newsweek, and Gawker.