JOURNALISM AS A PUBLIC GOOD AND THE NEED FOR GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES

With traditional forms of journalism facing threat from online and digital media, critics are calling for governments to save a profession they consider a ‘public good.’

Traditionally an economics term, a ‘public good,’ describes a product which individuals can consume in desired quantities without reducing its availability for others (The Linux Information Project, 2006). Alternatively, a ‘private good,’ describes a product which reduces in quantity as individuals use or purchase it (The Linux Information Project, 2006). Examples of public goods are clean air and the defence forces (The Linux Information Project, 2006). An example of a private good is food (The Linux Information Project, 2006). As public goods tend to generate minimal profit, governments often become the primary or sole providers of the product, as little incentive for private businesses exists (Davis, 2009).

Journalism can be considered a public good because market forces alone are no longer able to produce journalism in appropriate quantities, and, individual consumption of journalism does not leave less for others (Thorton, 2009). In their book ‘The Death and Life of American Journalism,’ Robert McChesney and John Nichols corroborate stating, “it is something society needs and people want, but market forces are now incapable of generating in sufficient quality of quantity (Clement, 2010).”

Furthermore, it is difficult to force society to pay for journalism (The Linux Information Project, 2006). Known as the ‘Free Rider Problem,’ public goods generally are used free of charge, consequently resulting in less profits for the producer of the good (The Linux Information Project, 2006). For this reason, academics argue non-market (government) support is necessary to produce journalism (Cooper, 2009, Clement, 2010).

Columnist for Forbes, Trevor Butterworth however, claims the journalism industry shouldn’t receive any further government funding for several reasons. Firstly, he comments that there is no evidence publicly funded journalism is more substantial and serves society better than commercial news (Butterworth, 2010). Secondly, he claims journalism and the media are held in low regard by society and therefore “it would be easier to consider journalism a public good if the public thought it was any good (Butterworth, 2010).” Finally, he asserts that government funded journalism would be susceptible to political bias and difficult to regulate, despite the diverting of taxpayer money probably resulting in a demand for public accountability (Butterworth, 2010).

The fear of political bias in publicly funded journalism is what many consider an overly common misconception (Smith, 2010, McChensey & Nichols, 2010). As Smith points out, those who own market based journalism typically have money, power and conservative views and are therefore no more politically neutral the government funded news (Smith, 2010). The video below (Zoneouted, 2011) shows the program ‘Media Watch,’ which reports on unethical and false reporting mishaps of all Australian media, including government funded news outlets. To best see how the program regulates Australian media, including the government broadcasting network that it airs on, watch from 1.22 minutes to 4.49 minutes.

The societal benefit of journalism over the past century has generally been underappreciated because advertising clouded much of the news (Smith, 2010, McChensey & Nichols, 2010) Although journalism creates value beyond monetary revenue, such as facilitating democracy, large declines in advertising incomes have dramatically stunted it’s ability to continue doing so (Cooper, 2009).

Publications such as the Wall St Journal which rely on serious, reliable journalism to function will suffer unless funding via taxes or grants from the government are given to promote investigate and credible reporting (Smith, 2010, McChensey & Nichols, 2010). The video below shows Robert McChensey elaborate on why journalism as a public good requires more financial support from the government (Videonation, 2010).

Statistics confirm countries, which spend significant amounts on journalism subsidies, rank highest on press freedom and democracy scales. The six top ranked nations in the 2008 Economist’s Democracy Index possessed some of the highest journalism subsidies on Earth (Smith, 2009). Sweden (ranked one) and Norway (ranked two), each spent $30 billion on journalism subsidies in 2008 (McChensey & Nichols, 2010). In contrast, the US ranked 18th spending $480 million (Smith, 2010). Interestingly, this is the amount it costs the country to occupy Iraq for two and a half days (Smith, 2010).

Journalism is a public good because it aids democracy and acts as a watchdog on both the private and public sectors of society (Smith, 2010). For substantial journalism and a variety of competing news sources to continue existing, government assistance is required to support a profession with little appeal to the private market (Smith, 2010). As McChensey and Nichols comment, “everyone agrees a free society requires a free press- but a free press requires resources (McChensey & Nichols, 2010).”

REFERENCES

Brand, J. (2011). Digital Media and Society, Week 9 Lecture. Gold Coast, Bond University

Butterworth, T. (2010). The Future of Journalism. Retrieved March 9, 2011, from http://www.forbes.com/2010/03/30/journalism-media-digital-internet-opinions-columnists-trevor-butterworth.html

Clement, C. (2010). Journalism: A Classic ‘Public Good’. Retrieved March 9, 2011, from http://www.savethenews.org/blog/10/01/08/journalism-classic-%E2%80%98public-good%E2%80%99

Cooper, M. (2009). The Future of Journalism is Not in the Past. Retrieved March 9, 2011, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-cooper/the-future-of-journalism_b_186675.html

Davis, P. (2009). Information as Property. Retrieved March 9, 2011, from http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2009/04/09/information-as-property/

Flew, T. (2008). New Media: An Introduction (3rd Edition). Victoria, Oxford University Press

Kluth, A. (2008, December). The Perils of Sharing. The Economist, p. 28.

McChesney, R, Nichols, J. (2010, January). How to Save Journalism. The Nation, p. 11-16.

Smith, D. (2010). Why we need public financing of investigative journalism. Retrieved March 10, 2011 from http://www.opednews.com/articles/Public-goods-private-bads-by-Don-Smith-100223-141.html

The Linux Information Project. (2006). Public Goods: A Brief Introduction. Retrieved March 9, 2011, from http://www.linfo.org/public_good.html

Thorton, J. (2009). The Texas Tribune- Because Journalism is a Public Good. Retrieved March 9, 2011, http://insomniactive.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/the-texas-tribune-because-journalism-is-a-public-good/

Videonation. (2010). Journalism as a Public Good. Retrieved March 13, 2011, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DNp2SYF85g

Zoneouted. (2011). Media Watch- ABC 1- Close Captioning for Deaf People. Retrieved March 13, 2011, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITJ1uFB2V-I

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