Profits are killing journalism.
Publishers and editors care more about the bottom line than the
quality of their reporting. Newsrooms are shrinking, as a result, and
good stories have gone untold. The public is worse off because of it.
So goes one argument, at least, in the debate about public funding
of journalism. It’s a hot topic that appears immune to any clear-cut
solution, and it’s shaking the foundation of what it means to do
journalism and the best way to do it. Among the big questions are:
Should public funding expand to cover the gaps left by the shrinking
private news business?
Could it expand without government support, and
would this create conflicts?
Would a heavily subsidized public media
serve us better than the private media?
If so, how?
With a sponsorship from Free Press,
we asked the Spot.Us community to tell us what they thought. We
then invited the 407 users who took the survey to decide where the
sponsorship dollars would go, which is to say we handed over a part of
our budget to them in return for their two cents.
Keep in mind, the survey was not scientific, and there was a degree
of audience self-selection, i.e., the Spot.Us community. Nonetheless,
with several hundred respondents, we did get a diverse set of answers.
One interesting thing to note is that, while a previous survey showed a
split (almost 50/50) in the “objectivity” debate,
this survey on public/private media showed a much more one-sided
response. This might be because, as previously suspected, Spot.Us’
community overlaps with the “public media” demographic.
To begin, the majority of respondents reported that they listened to
NPR (71 percent), read the news online (79 percent), or used non-profit
news sources (58 percent), while the minority reported that they
received a newspaper at home (37 percent) or donated to non-profit news
media (41 percent). From these numbers, we can see among other things
that, although the majority listen to NPR or use non-profit news
sources, there is a sizeable gap between using non-profit media and
donating to them.
In response to a question about programming —“In general, how would you rate the quality of
news, arts and education programming on public media versus commercial
media? — the vast majority (74 percent) said the programming on public
media is of higher quality. A mere 19 percent said the programming on
public and private media is of equal quality, and only 5 percent said
public programming is of lower quality.
Half way through the survey we even switched the ordering of these
potential answers to ensure no undue influence. The first half of the
respondents saw the answer “public media is of higher quality” first
and the second half saw that answer last. In either case the majority
viewed the programming as higher quality.
When asked if they would support the creation of a public media
endowment to increase funding for educational programs, arts, and
investigative journalism, respondents overwhelmingly said yes (84
percent), with only 3 percent saying no and the rest undecided.
Likewise, they would overwhelmingly support (93 percent) the creation
of a matching grant program that would combine foundation grants with
public funding to support innovation and investment in local news and
So far, all of this suggests that respondents like to use
non-profit media; they believe public programming is of higher quality
than private programming; they would support public endowment and
matching grant programs to increase funding; however, they do not
necessarily make personal donations to those ends.
The respondents, with their generally favorable view of public
media, also said more conflicts arise in journalism that relies on
commercial advertising than in journalism that relies on taxpayer
funding. Fifty-seven percent believed that to be true, while 12
percent said taxpayer funding creates more conflicts, and 31 percent
said neither creates more conflicts and that strong firewalls between
funding and journalists can prevent bias.
We also asked a few open-ended questions.
The first one was, “What should be the role of public and
noncommercial media in the future of journalism?” Below are a few
anecdotal responses from Spot.Us members who gave us permission to
publish their views.
“Journalism should be supported by the public, but traditionally the
expectation by newspaper executives has been to not ask for the public
to support their product. Journalists and news executives have an
obligation to build better arguments for the public to support the
news. In order for that to happen, though, journalism needs to
demonstrate value to readers.” — Denise Lockwood
“Non-profit and other alternative funding models will increasingly
have to make up for the loss of advertising funded journalism. NPR has
done this already but more needs to happen. There will need to be a
broader range of non-profit media orgs than we have right now, and
non-profits focused on substantive issues (environment, human rights,
etc.) will increasingly become news providers themselves. Hopefully,
some of these new iterations will be exemplars in terms of how to
establish and benefit from partnerships and collaborative models. We
may see more “temporary” journalism outlets as non-profit news outlets
spring up and die out in this transitional period.” — Melissa Wall
“Journalist(s) need to figure out how to make their product of value
to the community. While I love NPR and that model, nothing is wrong
with a profit. Good journalism should be able to support itself, but
for decades now people have ranked journalist right up there with
lawyer, car salesman and politician. That has to change and we need to
be honest why people feel that way.” — Eddie North-Hager
“Ideally, publicly funded media should focus solely on communications
that are not commercially viable. However there has to be focus on
what the public is interested in, not just what is in the public
interest. Without remaining relevant and interesting, public media
becomes irrelevant.” — Spot.Us Community Member
“Another question should be what is the public’s role in public
media. I think public media should be a place where people can go to
tell their stories (think storycorps) where discussions can happen
where people of all sides can hear each others voices (think bbc’s have
your say); Chicago’s vocalo is interesting in this way. Recent
“pubcamps” are interesting in this way. NPR opening up its API is
interesting in this way, in that they invite programmers and
technologists to participate. I think the quality of public
broadcasting is high, but airtime is at a premium, they should find
ways to put MORE programs on the web and open up the airwaves for new
talent. I think funding is an issue too. I live in Paris and stream
programs live from any number of stations; I also podcast my favorites.
I don’t know which station I should support, I know I want to support
specific programs. I know I want to support NPR; but I don’t have a
local station and I don’t know that I want one.” — John Tynan
The second open-ended question was, “In the past, government has
provided tax breaks to media companies, given broadcasters free
licenses for public airwaves, funded PBS and NPR, and subsidized
newspapers through legal ads and postal rates. What should be the
government’s role in the future?” Below, again, are a few anecdotal
“Regulation is necessary (else, the commercial media could say
anything they wanted, regardless of effect or truth), but I don’t like
the government’s involvement in the money behind broadcasting. Things
start to sound like China with its enmasse censorship of media incoming
and outgoing. Free speech should remain free – free of censorship and
influence. If you think publishing or reporting a story will keep the
government from sending you extra funds, you aren’t likely to print it.
Thus, the free press becomes the mouthpiece for a government and
This said, I think government subsidizing of NPR and PBS is
important because these are services funded by donations from
watchers/listeners, and that is who they (should) have loyalty to first
because that is where the money is coming from, rather than political
parties or politicians.” — Kaylene Narusuke
“The old models don’t work because in the 1980s, newspapers made a
lot of money from ads and became very profitable, changing the
expectations from the owners. Those expectations haven’t changed while
the competition for ads has. Newspapers adopted the USA-Today model,
dumbing down stories, writing shorter and more shallow stories. People
want deep, well written stories in any format. Government agencies
could support investigative reporting, specialty reporting, and
reporting on the arts, but the public has to be willing to pay for
responsible journalism.” — Yvonne
“Government should recognize that high-quality journalism is an
important part of a healthy democracy, and that well-informed citizens
are more engaged and more likely to vote. Government should expand
direct funding for public media beyond PBS and NPR by creating a grant
program for organizations developing new kinds of public-media models.” — Lila LaHood
“I don’t see a problem with calculated tax breaks for the media
industry whether it’s limiting taxes on the purchases of paper products
or electronic devices. To me that’s no different than oil companies,
banks, light manufacturing getting financial breaks or incentives to
conduct business. Those who represent converged or multimedia take
issue with this, citing these as out-dated mediums with failed business
models. Therefore, they should not be buoyed with tax dollars and in a
true capitalism, failed businesses disappear and make way for newer,
better models.” — Kevin Smith
“All of these things are helpful, but American journalism really
needs something more revolutionary right now. Stop thinking about tax
breaks and advertising and start thinking about something equal to the
National Endowment for the Arts, but replace ‘Arts’ with ‘Journalism’. I
hope our leaders act now before we lose the 4th Estate, and a
generation of enthusiastic young journalists.” — Daysha Eaton
So there you have it, the views of the Spot.Us community on public
vs. private journalism. Any of it surprise you? Confuse you? Bore
you? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section!