If journalism is a public good, then it should be a public service | Citizens' Press

| March 13, 2013


A response to Don Lenihan’s article (which is a near copy of many other articles) on the coming death of independent news organizations because of their implementation of paywalls. The paywall model is the expression of more than just the decline in people buying newspapers and advertisers finding other avenues. It is an expression of the contradictions that exist between private funding and journalism as a public good.


In an article this morning in iPolitics (this is by no means an endorsement of that blog site that is of questionable value), Don Lenihan writes on paywalls in Are we beating our heads against a paywall. Don asserts, as many have done before him, that the news industry can be considered a public good and is in trouble if they think they will be saved by the paywall.

While I agree with him that journalism is a public good, I disagree with the default analysis that it is up to large businesses that run our newspapers to find market-based solutions to funding it. Generally, things that are considered public goods by the majority of folks are best paid for through taxes through institutions that are publicly owned. There is a history of this and it is called public broadcasting (read CBC, BBC, etc.). However, a public good model specific to the work for journalists would have to be developed and the basis for this is found in the public university and health care system.

The current model of creating free news is modeled like this now for a large part of the industry. Breaking the industry down, we have public tax-funded news organizations, we have nonprofit and for-profit mixed-model (donation, advertising and foundation-supported) news organizations (PBS, NPR, Aljazeera) and we have private for-profit news organizations.

The for-profit news organizations can be broken into two groups: news organizations and propaganda/monitoring arms of large oligopolies. In the category of propaganda/monitoring departments of oligopolies I would include Thompson-Reuters and Bloomberg news corporations which exist mostly as an extension of the services they provide finance capital. They can give their information away for free because it is not the core aspect of their business model—and the arms are convenient avenues of propaganda that justify the dominance of finance capital.

Of these different categories, two types are facing a crisis: public news organizations because “austerity” policies of neo-liberal governments trying to dismantle the welfare state and the single-purpose news organizations such as newspapers. The austerity issue is a political battle, but the attack on the important role of independent news organizations is important to address, since this is where many of our journalists work. However, the solution may be the same for both institutions.

This is not a new crisis for printed news. It goes back to the reliance on corporate advertising and the immense contradictions that result from that funding model. This is why there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that print news if funded and the rise of the Internet—which exposes this contradiction between profit-making and journalistic integrity to everyone (even journalists)—is a great opportunity to start a conversation about those alternatives.

There is no reason why news journalists (not news organizations) cannot be paid through the public purse. Independence from the state is key and there is along history of analysis of independence of journalists both from the State and Capital to lean on here. Part of the solution will likely be found in the academic systems of public universities where independence from the State and Capital can be fought for. (This is less and less the case as universities become privatized and funded more like news papers with a similar fate awaiting them—but that is for another article.).

There is no magic cure or structure that can be implemented that would not have some problems. However, and I think that this is the point, if the majority of Canadians believe that journalism is a public good, then we should fund it accordingly: through taxes and run through public-administered institutions run by journalists themselves.

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