Guardian column: Ditchley and the market demand for journalism

My Guardian column this week recounts the debate at Ditchley on whether there is a market demand – and market failure – for quality journalism and on the idea of government subsidy for newspapers. The column got squeezed by a larger-than-usual ad – a good cause – so I’ll paste the original here:

It was hard not to look for symbolism in the surroundings when publishers, editors, academics, and others gathered on the grounds of Ditchley Park a week ago for discussion about the destiny of journalism and democracy, sponsored by the BBC Trust and the foundation that owns the 1720s estate. Under opulent ceilings—and the cloak of the Chatham House Rule—the representatives of incumbent and beneficent power expressed grave and urgent concern about the fate of newspapers as they debated drastic measures for dire times—even state subsidy for local papers.

As an American, accustomed to being in the national majority in such meetings, I felt like the alien I was. I’m not used to breathing coal smoke and history. And I’m quite allergic to the notion of government support for and regulation of media, especially news. But I was surrounded by Britons—and fellow foreigners—who appreciate the value of public service broadcasting, even as they engage in the national sport of thwacking the BBC. I learned a lot about you, my cousins, at Ditchley.

The real question for the weekend turned out to be whether there is a market demand—and a looming market failure—for quality journalism. I was the optimist in the room (the library, to be exact) and set off an impromptu poll on pessimism. The optimists, surprising me, won.

But clouds rolled in when talk turned, inevitably, to the scarcity of business models for news in this post-scarcity media economy. I foresee many new models, though unproven, involving networks, platforms, collaboration, new efficiencies, and new players. Others, however, saw no promising models, and so some considered what is not without precedent in Britain: public funds to support journalism, except now for local papers, at least through their transition—they pray—to digital.

Many forms of subsidy were suggested: A slice of the BBC’s or ITV’s cake is the starting point (which Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger broached in these pages recently). What about a tax on Google? I argue Google is enabling more than exploiting digital media. Then why not a tax on broadband providers? But one might consider San Francisco’s wish to provide broadband for all—eliminating that revenue stream—as a better endowment for media and information. Instead of public service publishing, why not public service connectivity?

At the end of the weekend, talk turned to another form of subsidy, which I suggested—naively, I thought—here in 2006: If the BBC is a public trust, why not have it actively support quality journalism? The idea at the meeting was to rebuild newspapers on BBC technology. I’d go farther: The BBC should link to and promote the best of British journalism. It should open its content to remixing by other media (and the public). It could use its international ad sales force to sell quality British sites’ foreign inventory. It should become a lab for shared innovation: the BBC as an open-source platform.

As was pointed out at Ditchley, journalism already is subsidized: The Guardian has its Scott Trust, the Times its mogul, the Washington Post a profitable education company, the Telegraph its sales of wine, local papers their council ads, and everybody had—had—classified ads. So we return to the question: Is there a true market demand for quality journalism or is it already a charity or public utility?

Is the death of profitable journalism as it was the fault of its stewards, its audience, or market circumstances? Given the setting and the timing—just as Chicago’s Tribune Company readied bankruptcy—it was tempting to look for journalism’s murderer, as if in a game of Clue: the butler, in the parlor, with a knife—or local newspaper stewards, in their privileged and complacent monopolies, with a lack of strategic foresight and a surplus of debt. Or are the culprits citizens everywhere who don’t care enough? American populist and optimist that I am, I don’t think so.

Are papers merely victims of time and technology? I wondered whether newspapers’ masters, like Ditchley’s ennobled land barons, are now out of their age. I don’t believe they will be replaced by the workers in the stable—citizen journalists (who weren’t in the room). But I do think we’ll all end up working closer together, tilling smaller fields.

: LATER: Here‘s Adrian Monck on the conference, with the rapporteur’s report. And Charlie Beckett. And Richard Sambrook. I’ll write more later about this idea of government support for journalism and why I oppose it.