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,

* 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.