I titled today’s blog post with full knowledge of the risk of posing a QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No, a genre of headline collected by John Rentoul, indicative of journalistic sensationalism and irrationalism, like “Is the Loch Ness monster on Google Earth?). Alright, I confess: my headline is a QTWTAIN. Journalism should not be subsidized. Unlike most of the QTWTAIN genre, though, my headline suggests a forthcoming affirmative—the QTWTAIN must always masquerade as a QTWTAIY—while delivering no affirmation of no expected principles.
Today’s commentary was inspired by a blog post on The Guardian’s website, “A broadband levy to fund journalism? Now that’s a very clever idea.” In the first paragraph, we stumble on the following statement: “We have been puzzling for years about how to subsidise [sic] journalism once it makes the final transition from print to net.” The statement includes two assumptions, one, that journalism will require subsidization after the print-to-digital transition, and two, that some nebulous “we” ought to undertake that subsidization when the time arrives. Both of those assumptions must be addressed separately, but, spoiler alert, I disagree with both.
The general argument underwriting the first assumption is that the print-to-digital transition will make “journalism” unsustainable. Such arguments rest on two prior and faulty assumptions, that print journalism (and its attendant forms and tropes) constitutes a kind of superior, ur- journalism so triumphant that it supersedes all alternates, and that the revenue model of print journalism will be infeasible in a digital ecosystem. Already, the media community is witnessing the transformation of journalism in a web milieu—crowdsharing, sourcing, and funding, instantaneous publishing, and social media have shifted expectations for not only digital journalism, but also its print sibling. That is to say, print journalism does not operate in stasis. Print media has been forced to evolve in tandem with new digital forms. The privileging of print media as a superior communication to digital journalism, or, for that matter, non-journalistic digital utterances, is a last stab by a struggling industry to slay its rival. There are few convincing arguments as to why digital journalism cannot accomplish the same objectives as print journalism, at least if digital journalism can sustain itself.
According to its detractors, the intrinsic problem with digital journalism is that it is not self-sustaining. Conventional (read: old) journalism relies on full-time journalists. Journalism has been professionalized and bureaucratized. And as we have learned since the days of Walter Lippmann’s “Drift and Mastery,” bureaucracy cannot survive without bureaucrats. If journalism is a bureaucracy that lives and breaths according to its subservient bureaucrats, then journalism needs adequate funds to feed those cells. Without the proper cash-money, journalists (who are often the ones making these claims) and journalism cannot last. Let us suppose that these claims are true, that superior formulations of journalism require a class of professional, bureaucratized journalists. Could digital journalism generate enough revenue to support its digital journalists? Not at the moment. It seems likely, however, that the enormous cash potential of online media consumption will become more accessible to content producers as digital advertising technologies become more sophisticated. The success of a companies like the New York Times and the Economist indicate that a print-to-digital transition is not a zero-sum game (meaning that print revenue streams will self-subsidize digital journalism for a long time to come) and that online revenue streams can develop to substitute for print advertising and subscriptions.
What if the conventions of print journalism really are superior to digital journalism, and digital journalism cannot replicate those conventions, and digital journalism cannot support those replications? Subsidization would seem to be in order. Roy Greenslade follows David Leigh’s proposal, a levy on broadband subscribers. A levy would help disentangle subsidies from the influence of the state on journalism. Concerns about subsidies usually center on those entanglements, wherein the state leverages its monetary support into undue influence. A levy system seems to solve the problem of state influence. I remain unconvinced, however, that in a worst case scenario, subsidies are the answer.
There are two problems with subsidies to large media companies making the print-to-digital transition. First, those subsidies will allow media providers to extend worst practices from the print to the digital ecosystem. One reason that print media is struggling is that print journalism no longer meets the demands of digital consumers. Subsidizing worst print practices online is like throwing money into a virtual hole. Subsidizing print journalism online will only perpetuate atavistic practices that ought to atrophy. Instead of preserving those outmoded practices, we should focus on incorporating the best applicable print practices into the digital ecosystems, and on rewarding those companies that are providing best digital journalism to consumers. Second, and in relation, subsidizing digital journalism will only subsidize the idea of “journalism” that has descended genealogically from print ancestors. Clinging to the idea of journalism is unlikely to prove profitable online. Journalism itself developed as a phenomenon of new material technologies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now that we have newer material technologies, immaterial technologies as it were, we must jettison the structures of journalism that depend on print.
We must be free to experiment without the entailments of subsidies. Everything that we thought of as true regarding journalism needs reevaluation. We must test the hypotheses of the column, the news section, the byline, etc. Leaving journalism behind will be difficult for journalists most of all. Yet, we must look to journalists to reject the constrictions of their own profession. Without their cooperation, flexibility, and enthusiasm, nostalgia for newsprint could destroy everything they want to save in newsprint itself.