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What makes people avoid the news? Trust, age, political leanings — but also whether their country’s press is free
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March 4, 2020, 12:14 p.m.
LINK: blog.wan-ifra.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 4, 2020

I do not believe the world needs any more opinions about Ben Smith’s first media column at The New York Times. (There have been plenty!)

But there is one thread worth another tug, I think. The piece’s (worthy of gentle mockery) triumphalism — “Nobody can compete with The New York Times in 2020!” — is really a replacement for the last mistaken triumphalism in the news business. That would be the “We digital upstarts are going to crush those fusty old-timers at The New York Times!” version, circa the early 2010s.

The Times so dominates the news business that it has absorbed many of the people who once threatened it: The former top editors of Gawker, Recode, and Quartz are all at The Times, as are many of the reporters who first made Politico a must-read in Washington…The Style section is a more polished Gawker, while the opinion pages reflect the best and worst of The Atlantic’s provocations. The magazine publishes bold arguments about race and American history, and the campaign coverage channels Politico’s scoopy aggression…

I’m proud to be leaving BuzzFeed News as one of a handful of strong, independent newsrooms still standing amid the rubble of consolidation. But I miss the wide open moment 10 years ago, when we were among a wave of new players reimagining what news meant…

And I hope that earlier era of innovation didn’t exist merely to create a farm team and some lessons for the newspaper equivalent of the 1927 Yankees.

There were a lot of media people seven or eight years ago whose thinking went something like this: Yeah, things are really rough for newspapers. But there are all these smart digital companies like Vox Media, Vice, and BuzzFeed. And all these smart hyperlocal bloggers. And all these smart nonprofit outlets getting started. Between them all, we’re gonna figure this out! Maybe the old world is dying, but a new world is coming up to replace it.

Reader, I might even count myself in that group.

But the harsh reality of the past few years has told a darker story: Yeah, things are still really, really rough for newspapers. And…there isn’t much coming to replace them.

Today’s difficult truth isn’t so much that The New York Times has in some sense beaten out the BuzzFeeds and Politicos of the world by absorbing the best of what they’ve learned in digital. That’s pretty standard behavior in a market. Some young upstarts might beat out an incumbent — but more often, they find themselves copied, acquihired, or otherwise transformed into a how-to guide for BeenAroundForeverCorp.

The big problem is that, in local news, neither the incumbents (newspapers) nor the upstarts (local digital news sites) have been able to figure out how to make it work sustainably and consistently.

In other words, the Times’ success is evidence that there is a good business to be had doing high-quality national and international news. All those VC guys funding the Vices and Voxes were right to think that there was a big and profitable market there and to give it a shot. But I am increasingly convinced that the market just won’t support high-quality local news in many, many places around the United States — whether it’s produced by The Daily Gazette or YourLocalNewsSite.com.

All that is preamble to this brief interview with Victor Pickard, a Penn professor who has reached a similar conclusion. His latest book, out last December, is Democracy without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society. The interview itself doesn’t cover new ground — Pickard’s Guardian piece last month hits the same notes — but it’s a distillation of this argument that local news has reached market failure and that non-market solutions should be considered.

The market’s failure to support journalism at a systemic level necessitates nonmarket approaches. Two general approaches have potential. One approach aims to minimise commercial pressures by relying on private capital. In the U.S., for example, news organizations can move toward this model by converting into nonprofit institutions (see the Salt Lake Tribune) or what might be considered low-profit institutions — or, at least where profit is not the sole criterion for success, such as public benefit corporations (see the Philadelphia Inquirer)…

A second approach is a public option, which is more systemic and, in many ways, more promising, but also more politically fraught. Public investments in local journalism could build on public broadcasting systems to provide news and information across all types of media and platforms. One major benefit with public systems is that a universal service mandate is baked into their DNA. One concern with these models is their political independence. Although government should help set up the funding mechanisms, this money should be guaranteed with no strings attached. The government can have no control over news operations, which should be democratized and bottom-up….

The core root of today’s journalism crisis is what I refer to as “systemic market failure”…Advertising had long served as a subsidy for print journalism, which is expensive and rarely pays for itself. Subscriptions and other payments schemes have not worked for most outlets, and there really is no commercial replacement for supporting local journalism. We must, therefore, shift our paradigm to focus on non-market-based means of support.

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