The fate and role of public media

Gerald Tooth’s Media Report on Australian Broadcasting — one of the best media shows anywhere, by the way — has back-to-back episodes about the future of public media contrasting:

* Canada, where there is a move afoot to take commercials off the CBC and give it more tax support to make it more public and less commercial;

* Australia, where there is a move to add more commercials to their ABC, recognizing the explosion of media changes the need for publicly supported broadcasting.

* The UK, where the BBC is trying to figure out just what its role is in the media there and worldwide. This week, Tooth interviews Georgina Born, an English academic who studied the inner workings of the Beeb and argues that it needs public support to spark innovation (citing digital TV and radio).

Now let me add in a few more:

* In the U.S., of course, we never stop debating funding of PBS and NPR. There are those on the right who want to cut it off from the tax teat. And I’m of the mind that finding some way to make them independent of tax support would also help insulate them from political pressure and government control. There are also those who want to tax commercial broadcasters to pay for public broadcasting.

* In the U.S., we are also starting expand the definition of publicly supported media beyond tax grants to donations, in the tradition of both our public networks. See, of course, NewAssignment.net.

* And now to France, where the government is shocked at the declining fate of national newspapers and is considering more tax breaks and subsidies.

It’s not easy to get my American mind around this because I am so allergic to government involvement in and thus interference in and control of media and speech. I was going to say that it still seems odd to me that TV can be tax-supported while I could not imagine tax support of newspapers… but then, there are always the French.

So I prefer to broaden this to a larger discussion about new business models for media and how public support fits into that.

There’s no question that advertising will not support everything; it doesn’t today. But I firmly believe it will continue to support most media needs, especially as advertisers begin to learn that their days of one-stop-shopping for masses is over and, as I’ve argued here since 2004 and as we hear frequently in Chris Anderson’s book, the mass is replaced by masses of niches.

Scott Karp said the other day that journalism should be nonprofit. Said that way, I disagree and think that notion can be dangerous. Journalism that serves the public will attract the public and that will attract advertisers and support the journalism; it really can be a virtuous circle. If journalism is cut off from advertising support — because the journalists avoid it or because advertisers avoid them — then we will simply have less journalism. And journalism cut off from the marketplace is journalism gone deaf, I fear. When newspaper people say that newspapers can’t exist as either public or for-profit companies, I shudder, for I see an industry that doesn’t want to change just trying to find new, dumb money as a means to forestall that change. And the change is necessary and right.

But I don’t mean to mischaracterize what Karp is saying just because people mean something else by the words in his headline. Scott says:

Journalism has always been subsidized, whether by the pure commerce of classified ads or the mass media monopoly of the old network newscast. But in a fragmented, contextual world, nobody wants to advertise next to stories of death and despair in the Middle East. But those stories need to be told as a public service — and what better way to fund a public service than through a mission-oriented nonprofit.

I may now mischaracterize it, but I think he’s saying that not all journalism can be for-profit. In a one-size-fits-all product world, broccoli news of the sort Scott cites rode along with the bon bons of lifestyle and celebrity coverage. Yet a newspaper with no broccoli would not sell as a newspaper (it instead becomes one of too many magazines like that). So veggies still have value. But when one-size-fits-all media is cut up and unbundled, when advertisers can choose to sponsor this piece of content and not that, then the risk to necessary and unhappy news becomes greater.

Advertising won’t support everything. Tax support raises questions, including not only government interference but also political will. So what will the public support directly? What will the mix of money and models be in the future? What will it be national-to-local, country-to-country, mainstream-to-special-interest? These are the bigger questions being raised about public media.

: By the way, since I’m praising Tooth’s show, I’ll point you to two more superb episodes: this one about foreign correspondents’ fixers and this, which I’ve touted before, about the new journalists of Afghanistan. Many shows are, understandably, very inside-rugby views of Australian media. That is, after all, what the show is about. But when Tooth tackles topics that cut across national media lines, he does a good job of it and we see the issues are the same in most places, but the answers are sometimes different.

  • And now to France, where the government is shocked at the declining fate of national newspapers and is considering more tax breaks and subsidies.

    It’s not easy to get my American mind around this because I am so allergic to government involvement in and thus interference in and control of media and speech.

    Editorsweblog says that the Economist says (paywalls, all is paywalls) ‘that by some counts “70% of the French press is in the hands of defence firms.’ (See http://qurl.com/d346p). I can appreciate a reticence about the government getting involved in media, but it appears that in France at least there are worse people already controlling the majority of the press.

  • Removing ads from CBC is not being discussed at any serious level, that is, with an associated discussion of where the extra money is going to come from. (A lot of the discussion is coming from media outlets owned by CBC’s competition.)

    Except, of course, such a plan is being discussed by the CBC mystery blogger, A. Ouimet, who proposes to charge for-profit broadcasters for their licences.

  • There seems to be a pattern: Whenever there is some non-profit or government run program which does better than the commercial competition there is a cry to privatize it. This ranges from Social Security to Medicare to Blue Cross to the BBC.

    The usual claim is that the public institution has an unfair advantage, but perhaps it’s just that the privates don’t like being shown up. The truth is that most non-profits and government institutions are more efficient. They don’t pay high salaries, don’t have to flaunt their status in gaudy edifices (and yes they don’t have to pay taxes). If they weren’t efficient they wouldn’t be the object of take over efforts. The fate of Blue Cross and non-profit hospitals is a perfect example.

    What’s wrong with a government financed (but politically independent) media to compete with the commercial outlets?

  • Robert

    Do you really think that government run media would be politically independent? Or that the public sector is more efficient is more innovative than the private sector? To me, government can can often get bogged down in bureaucracy more so that private companies.

  • Andy Freeman

    > The usual claim is that the public institution has an unfair advantage, but perhaps it’s just that the privates don’t like being shown up.

    Are you really claiming that not having to pay expenses isn’t an advantage?

    It’s not “showing up” when you’re playing by different rules.

    If you’re going to demand my money, I’m going to demand control.

  • Once again an interesting topic. The discussion should be happening elsewhere, however.

    I see nothing wrong with a publicly funded broadcast outlet. With proper controls the influence of whoever was in office could be minimized. This includes things like a fee-based structure as in the UK. In addition the governing board and/or CEO could be picked in some way that political influence was minimized. Did we ever get to vote on Murdoch owning so much of the US media? Having a public service would not preclude as many private services as the market could support.

    I’m not sure what Andy Freeman’s point is, but…

    Private, non-profits get their funding from charities and/or revenue from their operations. Since they don’t have to make a profit they can afford to do things that private firms can’t or won’t.

    The economics of public projects are well understood which is why many projects are set up this way. Good examples include the NY Thruway Authority or the MTA. Notice that Jeff is himself now employed by a non-profit, government-sponsored institution (The City University of New York). This doesn’t prevent private college from existing. When it was established it provided a free college education. This is something that a private institution could not do, except on a very small scale. There is, to my knowledge, only one such school in the country doing this: Cooper Union. The enrollment is very small.

    There has been a shift in the belief is in public instiutions as the country as fallen into a pattern of what Jared Bernstein calls the YOYO society (you’re on your own). The pendulum has swung too far, localities are now selling off their highways to private firms. Notice the public paid for building them, but the private firms get the profit from running them.

    I think this proves my point.

  • Looking at this from an Australian perspective:

    Good on Jeff for noticing the strange American allergy to government involvement. It is not difficult to create a government funded broadcasting system which is pretty able to resist government interference. There are ways to create a depoliticised board (though our current government has abandoned this principle pretty thoroughly), and governments in theory can be persuaded through the ballot box to fund broadcasters properly.

    Ironically, one of the problems in this is that the private owners of commercial media will use their power to influence the electorate to keep the government media broke. Even here, where we have had ten years of a malign government influence on our two public broadcasters, the behaviour in the private media is still much more biased, and destructive.

    The problem with advertising, as we are discovering now, is that it corrupts institutions. You start with a few ads between programs, and discover you can make more money by putting them inside the programs, and then you offer coherent publicity campaigns that combine radio, TV and the internet, and then you are telling program makers to think of programs which are attractive to the demographic the advertiser wants, and keeps them happy for the commercials.

    Our second national broadcaster, SBS, has just decided to put ads into shows. The commissioning editors are telling program makers about placement – I have seen them do it. It is not a big step to run a car program because the advertisers want it..

    Advertising is corrupt. It is about influencing viewers to spend money. Program making, at its best, is about sharing a complex artistic experience. They don’t coexist. Its like telling a child you will be good to them, but every ten minutes, as payment, you are allowed to treat them badly.