10 September 2019

Saving the media

First, please read this post at Mock Paper Scissors from last week.  The traditional news media are struggling to find a business model that will keep them viable in the internet era.  Advertising managed for a while, but a lot of that has now migrated to other types of websites which offer advertisers better returns.  Now, as those of us who read a lot of news have noticed, many news sites are requiring paid subscriptions to access much or all of their content.  MPS observes that the revenues from this are unlikely to reach what these sites need to survive, and that "the media is silo'ing us" -- if everyone ends up getting their news from just a few sites they've bought subscriptions for, it will limit the range of information and viewpoints they can access.

It may be working for smaller news sites.  TPM, for example, seems to be having some success with its "Prime" system, in which about 20% of the content is accessible to paid subscribers only.  Could the same thing work for bigger operations like MSNBC and CNN?  Certainly their expenses are much larger, perhaps even relative to readership size.

In principle, I see no reason why a lot of people wouldn't be willing to pay.  In pre-internet days, people subscribed to newspapers and magazines -- enough did so to keep them afloat, anyway.  Most people probably subscribed to very few, but those were supplemented by TV news, which was free because it took paid ads and was subsidized by networks who made their real profits off of sitcoms and the like.

But it's certainly not a reader-friendly model.  It's too cumbersome.  There are at least couple dozen news sites I read fairly regularly.  I wouldn't even mind paying a little, but keeping track of a couple dozen passwords and having to log in every time I check a news site?  Too much work.  Also, I sometimes look at sites like RedState and NRO and Breitbart just to see what's making the rounds in Wingnuttia, but I'm certainly not going to pay them anything.  And all those subscriptions would add up.  $5 a month for access to a news site is one thing, but $5 each for every news site I look at would run over $100 a month, which would be a non-trivial expense for most people.

The problem of a multiplicity of paid sites is real.  A complaint I commonly see on Tumblr blogs is that internet TV streaming sites are proliferating in number because corporate owners want exclusive access to revenues from TV shows they own.  It was fine when there were just one or two sites to pay for to get access to most of what was out there, but when people have to subscribe to eight or nine streaming sites to get all their favorite shows, it's too much hassle and many are choosing to go back to pirating.

Perhaps a system could be devised where people would pay for an umbrella subscription service that would give access to many news sites, with the revenues being allocated to those sites on the basis of page views.  It's hard to imagine how this would work, though.

Another possible model is patronage.  Rich individuals or corporations could pay to keep news sites afloat.  But the dangers in this option are obvious.  Already a few corporate conglomerates own huge chunks of the MSM, posing a threat to their independence.

The best option I've been able to think of is some form of subsidy by government, accompanied by strict rules to prevent censorship or other interference in content.  If the free press is essential to democracy, then it's appropriate that it be treated as a public service and taxpayer-funded.  The BBC in the UK is government-subsidized and remains independent of the vagaries of party politics, and it's a vigorous and globally-respected institution.  PBS could form the nucleus of something similar here.

Of course, the Republicans for years have been trying to get rid of PBS, and if it became a major news site, they would certainly try to interfere with its content.  For the US, a better route might be to do something similar at the state level.  At least the larger states, like California and Texas, could provide their own mini-BBC news sites.  Since the internet makes content produced in one state equally accessible everywhere, people all over the US could see every state's news sites, guaranteeing access to a range of viewpoints.  If red states chose not to set up such sites because "soshulism!!!", their loss.

This would, at best, provide news sites with stable funding free of corporate influence.  It would not save the existing media which are now trying to survive by going to paid subscriptions.  It would, however, ameliorate the problem that most people would pay for only a few sites; their news intake would be supplemented by the state-funded sites, as people in pre-internet days supplemented their few newspaper and magazine subscriptions with free TV news.  Some states might even offer subsidies to some existing independent news services if there were no other way for the latter to survive -- but this would be radical even for the blue states, and choosing who qualified for subsidies would be a nightmare.

This isn't a perfect solution, but I don't think there is a perfect solution.  We need to be thinking about the problem, anyway.

A couple of final points:

First, the current situation where everybody has access to such a vast number of news sites for free is a product of the internet age -- for most of American history, news options were far more limited.  Right now I can look at literally hundreds of news sites from all over the US, and hundreds more in other countries, and most of them are free.  I'm old enough to remember when there was no internet and the news meant three or four free TV network programs, plus local TV news, plus whatever newspapers or magazines one could afford to pay for, which was not many (and access to non-US news was even more limited -- I used to buy German news magazines fairly regularly when I was studying the language, and that was not cheap).  So if most people end up "silo'ed" with three or four news sites they're willing to pay for plus free news on California's mini-BBC, we'll basically have just gone back to the situation as it was before the internet.  It won't be an unprecedented new constriction of access.

Second, technology is allowing information to spread in ways that entirely bypass the media.  The MSM have far less control over the flow of news than they did ten or twenty years ago. Blogs and discussion forums now reach enough people that information distributed there will eventually seep into the mass public mind, even if it takes longer than something that appears on MSNBC.  I've seen bloggers do original posts on events in their own local area, without reference to MSM sources.  I've known a few bloggers who even traveled to events to report on them in person.  Before the internet, those kinds of reports by an ordinary non-media person might at most have been distributed by mail to a few acquaintances.  Today they're instantly accessible worldwide and can be picked up by other blogs or forums which spread them to bigger audiences.  The fact that such reports may be less accurate than MSM reports doesn't negate the impact.  Then there's cell-phone video.  In recent years, many events have been captured on video by ordinary individuals on the scene who recorded them on their cell phones.  This has included events like riots, police brutality, even meteors.  In the old days, video of such events wouldn't exist, since by the time someone at a news organization heard what was going on and sent a reporter, the event would have been over.  So far from bloggers being dependent on MSM reporting to "jump-start" a story, the MSM and even the police often end up using some ordinary person's cell-phone video to show exactly what really happened.

The main benefit of this is that it makes censoring or spinning the news far more difficult.  But it also adumbrates what may become a new source of news, even if it's too haphazard to replace the MSM.  An ordinary person in Moscow or Hong Kong can film events there, upload the video to YouTube, and potentially reach as big an audience as a CNN report.  It's not the same thing CNN does, but that's not the point.  One way or another, the news is going to be out there, for those who seek it.


Blogger Nan said...

Good post.

Yes, the news is "out there," but it's most frustrating when one is prevented from reading it unless they pay for a subscription. I understand there are costs to maintain websites, but as you say, to pay monthly subscriptions to a number of them is definitely a "non-trivial expense."

It seems we will eventually have to depend on those individuals who share news via blogs and YouTube. It may not be the ideal solution but at least (for the time being anyway) it's free.

10 September, 2019 09:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My resistance to signing up for a "paid subscription" is that if I am going to surrender my privacy they should be paying me.
In the past a subscription to a local, or even national, news outlet could not track what you were reading, your interests or your comments.
Some subscribed for sports page, others for comics/puzzles etc.
Now with a paid subscription model the operator of the news site has a database of everything you read, can track your interests and all your comments.
Considering the use of Facebook ( Not TPM ) on many of these sites plus googles reach into everybody's business all the subscription model is doing is allowing an individual to be targeted and the site operators another revenue stream to enable that targeting.
Data scraping is a real thing and more "unprotected" exposure means greater "accuracy" in targeting for marketing and political reasons.
I appreciate that in todays world that privacy is anachronistic and that if some one wants to follow an individuals "bread crumbs" on the internet they can.
But I refuse to substitute those "bread crumbs" with flashing neon signs for any and all to take advantage of.
It is not that I think that I can protect my identity from those who may specifically target me but why make it easy for any random hacker or "Cambridge Analytics" to sell my preferences to be manipulated.
I can not supply an answer to this conundrum but there are many out there who are smarter than I.

10 September, 2019 15:00  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nan: Bloggers and 'tubers can do a lot, but I'd be concerned if the traditional newspapers and TV news vanished entirely. There's really no other institution with the tradition of investigative reporting and comprehensive coverage that they have.

Anon: Privacy is a real concern. There are some measures available to minimize tracking, but nothing that covers you for everything. Still, more and more people seem to be concerned about this. Perhaps paid sites will need to start offering a guarantee of no data collection in order to win subscribers.

11 September, 2019 17:04  

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