Pity the Poor Corporate Media!

It is very difficult for an old liberal like me to be sympathetic about the plight of the corporate media, given the way they have behaved of late. But the simple fact of the matter is that the commercial news media have fallen into a deep financial pit, and that is both good news and bad news for the political health of our republic.

In 2005, newspaper circulation declined over the previous year by 2.6 percent, with the largest declines posted in the major newspapers. Still worse, in 2007, newspaper advertising revenue fell by 9.4 percent. As a result of this shrinkage, in 2007 2,400 journalists lost their jobs, and 15,000 have been canned in the last decade.

The predicament of network TV evening news programs is still more desperate. In 1980, the combined audience for the NBC, CBS and ABC newscasts was 53 million. Just last month, that audience tallied at 21.5 million: about seven percent of the US population. And the median age of that audience is 60.2, which means that the networks are failing to reach the essential younger age cohorts.

The newspaper and broadcast industries cite a number of alleged reasons for these figures: the internet, competition from cable news programs, and declining literacy and political interest among the public.

Missing from this list is “the crud factor”; namely, that the quality and credibility of reporting has deteriorated so spectacularly that the public, fed-up with the insults and lies, has turned to other sources of news and information. As Newsweek’s Tony Dokoupil reports: “less than one person in five believes what he reads in print… and nearly nine of ten Americans believe that journalists are actively biased.”

The good news: at long last, the mainstream media is being punished for its failure to perform its essential service to the public; which is the presentation of accurate and relevant news along with competent, informed and diverse opinion.

The bad news: as the founders of our republic warned us, access to essential public information and the free publication of diverse opinions are indispensable to a free society. And as Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jay, “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Fortunately, a sizeable portion of our population, having acquired a healthy contempt for the corporate media, has found more reliable and informed sources of information in the alternative press and in the internet.

This promising development is undermined by the plain fact that the growing use of the internet as a free source of information and opinion is economically unsustainable. Why buy a newspaper or a magazine, when much or most of the content therein can be read for free on a computer monitor? And if so, who then will pay the researchers, writers, investigators, graphic designers, video producers, and publishers who gather, authenticate and then write and publish quality news and opinion?

For as we the “news consumers” too easily forget, quality journalism comes to us at a cost. The all-too-infrequent investigative reports in today’s media often require hundreds of hours of “hidden” labor by reporters and their staffs. The Pulitzer Prize winning disclosures in the Washington Post of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center required months of investigation by Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and Michel du Cille. Likewise, James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s exposure of illegal wiretaps by the Bush administration, and David Barstow’s recent uncovering of the Pentagon’s “hidden hand” inside the sock-puppet media “analyses” by retired military officers, each of which required substantial financial support by the publisher, the New York Times. Exposés such as these are, in turn, the raw material of journalistic scrutiny, and citizen activism and dissent, all of this nourished by the considerable investment of time and money by the publishers. Conversely, the quality of news reporting, in particular foreign reporting, has been severely compromised by the reduction and closing of news bureaus throughout the world.

If independent investigative reporting and responsible journalism are to be restored, how are they to be financed? Not by net surfers like you and me, who enjoy the product of hard journalistic labor for free. And yet, all of the aforementioned “scoops” — about Walter Reed Center, the illegal wiretaps, the retired military “experts” — can be had, gratis, on the internet. Just follow the links.

To be sure, many websites, including those of print publications, are at least partially supported by advertising income. Even so, it is doubtful that advertising alone can support a flourishing alternative independent media. Moreover, if ad revenue is to be the primary support of this new media, then the concerns of the commercial sponsors will all too often trump the public interest — a situation that is today the scourge of “the old media.”

I happen to subscribe to The Nation, the American Prospect and Mother Jones, among other progressive publications, but not because I have to. Most of their content is available on the internet. My subscriptions amount to donations, motivated more by conscience than by necessity. When I download content from publications to which I do not subscribe, I am a parasite gaining free “nourishment” from the labor and costs of others.

So I pose the question anew: with the erosion of paid support of established “mainstream” print and broadcast media, who and what is to pay for information and diverse opinion that is essential to a functioning democracy? If the purveyors of the junk that dominates the mass media today fail to reform themselves and as a result shrivel and die from financial strangulation, we’ll all be the better for it. Good riddance! But the question remains: who or what is to support the indispensable responsible journalism that is the lifeblood of our democracy — in particular, the journalism that appears on the internet, which might well become the next mass media?

It won’t do simply to ignore the question and to go on using the free internet while we have it. Such behavior imitates that of the Grover Norquist “tax reform” crowd, which willingly enjoys the benefits of the common public resources that are sustained by tax revenues — the courts, an educated public, physical infrastructure, regulation of commerce, protected food and drug supply, scientific research and development, etc. — yet steadfastly advocates the abolition of those taxes.

Simple fairness, not to mention economic viability, require that the investigators and reporters of essential public information be compensated, and that the requisite time, energy and expertise required to obtain this information, be financially supported.

But how is this to be accomplished?

I confess that I don’t have a simple answer. If you do, please share it with me, and we will publish the worthier proposals in The Crisis Papers.

But here, at least, is a suggestion, admittedly in need of much elaboration and refinement: adopt a system of financing similar to that of the music and entertainment industry.

As I understand it, most copyrighted music is registered with two agencies: ASCAP and BMI. Radio stations, artists, etc., who perform this music must pay a fee to the appropriate agency but not directly to the composers. The agencies then conduct surveys to determine how often the copyrighted works are performed, and then issue individual payments to the composers in proportion to the number of performances. (In my brief stint as a talk show host, some thirty years ago, I was not allowed to use a BMI tune as a theme, since the station was registered only with ASCAP. If my recollection of the system is incorrect, I am confident that some reader will set me straight). According to this arrangement, neither ASCAP nor BMI exercised any control over the use of titles in their inventories. They were entirely passive; it was up to the performers, station managers, disk jockeys, etc. to decide what was or was not to be performed, and this decision was, in turn, responsive to public preferences.

Might not a similar system be adopted by the internet service providers? A uniform fee might be assessed to each internet user, and the proceeds of that fee might then be put into a general “author/designer/producer/publisher fund.” Content creators might then be compensated according to the number of “hits” recorded for their works. (As any user of Google is well aware, this is a far more accurate system than the surveys conducted by ASCAP and BMI). Since literally millions of individuals post on the internet, there would have to be several “filtering” mechanisms separating the amateurs from the pros. One such filter might be a minimum threshold of “hits” required for compensation. Another would be an annual registration fee to be paid by the authors, with the payment added to the general fund. Suppose that fee were to be one hundred dollars. Since the likely annual payments to the vast majority of amateur bloggers would fall far short of the annual registration fee, most would opt themselves out of the system.

This system, like that of ASCAP and BMI, would be totally passive: no place here for censorship. The public, or if you prefer, “the market,” would rule. Payments would then be proportioned to the individual choices of the millions of users of the internet. And like ASCAP and BMI, the distributing agency would be a private, non-profit association of composers, artists and publishers, regulated by the government.

The cost to each internet user? Negligible, I believe, given the fact that there are now 211 million internet users in the United States, and nearly a billion worldwide, with internet use increasing by about eighteen percent a year. If each US user were to be charged ten dollars a year for payment to the “author/designer/producer/publisher fund,” that would total more than two billion dollars to the fund. An annual fee of one hundred dollars (about eight dollars a month), with revenues of twenty-one billion, would finance a free, independent and diverse media industry that would rival, and perchance supplant through open competition, the rotten-to-the-core corporate media that has betrayed us so spectacularly today.

For one hundred bucks a year, that’s a bargain, any way you look at it.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin and is the co-editor of The Crisis Papers. His e-mail is: gadfly@igc.org. Read other articles by Ernest, or visit Ernest's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on May 7th, 2008 at 12:53pm #


  2. evie said on May 7th, 2008 at 12:55pm #

    “Pulitzer Prize winning disclosures in the Washington Post of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center required months of investigation…” All anyone had to do was ask soldiers, patients, families, and hospital staff, or visit and look around.

    Didn’t a Dad recently video the conditions at his son’s dilapidated barracks? With a few million video-armed citizen journalists we might have a chance at free honest news, by the people for the people.

    If you think today’s media and government are in bed with generals you should have been around during the JFK assassination when it was frighteningly obvious.

    Since at least the days of Ben Franklin, newspapers have published lies and propaganda, the press has always been a prostitute.

    As for the “211 million internet users in the United States” that needs to be broken down and explained further. The link says 49.9 broadband subscribers. The largest percentage of those 211m “users” are libraries, businesses, schools – not private personal home users. At home folks using the net for political news and enlightenment are a small portion – after subtracting gamers, porno, assorted goofballs taping themselves, and others not interested in news.

    Looking on any list for the top searches and the majority is Britney Spears, Kobe Bryant, Uma Thurman, Speed Racer, Amy Winehouse, Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana, Dick Cheney naked woman in sunglasses, etc.

    And now you want us to finance more or less the same liars or their lineage and protégé on-line rather than in print. I can hardly wait for that end user fee to show up on my next bill.

    “…the distributing agency would be a private, non-profit association of composers, artists and publishers, regulated by the government.”

    Oh yes, government regulated non-profits. As if those billion dollar cliques have no scandals, hubris, nepotism, and ideological agendas.

    Getting screwed to the tune of $100 a year isn’t what I call a bargain.

  3. Don Hawkins said on May 7th, 2008 at 1:00pm #

    May 5, 2008
    Arctic sea ice forecasts point to lower-than-average season ahead
    Spring has arrived in the Arctic. After peaking at 15.21 million square kilometers (5.87 million square miles) in the second week of March, Arctic sea ice extent has declined through the month of April. April extent has not fallen below the lowest April extent on record, but it is still below the long-term average.
    Taken together, an assessment of the available evidence, detailed below, points to another extreme September sea ice minimum. Could the North Pole be ice free this melt season? Given that this region is currently covered with first-year ice, that seems quite possible.
    Faster decline reflects warmer Arctic
    At least part of the explanation for this fairly rapid decline lies in the warm conditions that characterized April over the Arctic Ocean and peripheral seas. Anomalies over some regions exceed 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit). For the most part, this unusual warmth is consistent with shifts in atmospheric circulation that bring warm air into the region. The distinct hot spot near Novaya Zemlya, in the upper left quadrant of Figure 3, overlies an open water area where heat is being released to the atmosphere. In past years, this area tended to be ice covered in April, preventing this heat release.
    Ronald Lindsay of the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory and collaborators recently published results from their own ice prediction system, based on a retrospective analysis of the modeled state of the ice and ocean system. The model is successful in explaining around 75% of the year-to-year variations for the past few decades; for 2008, the model implies a very low, but not extreme, sea ice minimum. Lindsay cautions that sea ice conditions are now changing so rapidly that predictions based on relationships developed from the past 50 years of data may no longer apply. NSIDC

    Figure 3. The spatial pattern of surface air temperature anomalies for April 2008, expressed with respect to the average for 1979 to 2007, shows unusually high temperatures over the Arctic Ocean and peripheral seas.
    —Credit: From National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Climate Diagnostic Center

    Lindsay cautions that sea ice conditions are now changing so rapidly that predictions based on relationships developed from the past 50 years of data may no longer apply.
    Could the North Pole be ice free this melt season? Given that this region is currently covered with first-year ice, that seems quite possible.
    There is the web site click on arctic sea ice news. New reports once a month. In September how will it play out well something like what’s a few bears? How about what’s a few crops Worldwide?

  4. Don Hawkins said on May 7th, 2008 at 1:05pm #

    The cyclone that has devastated Burma is not only set to push world rice prices higher but may have jeopardised the country’s long-term ability to feed its own population, Asian food experts say.

    As well as unleashing a catastrophic loss of life, Cyclone Nargis appears to have been fiercest in Burma’s main rice-growing region, the Irrawaddy delta.

    Full details of the damage are not yet clear, say World Food Programme officials, but the growing fear is that millions of tons of salt water have flooded onto the precious rice paddies, making them unfit for planting for some time.

    The UN agency said that it was not yet known whether Burma, a key rice exporter, would be able to meet commitments to supply the staple to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and has warned of “potentially serious effects”.

    Now the media can’t say this storm that 100,000 lives have been lost is because of climate change but I can.

  5. Trevor Hoyle said on May 7th, 2008 at 2:25pm #

    I think Evie said a mouthful — and it all made sense.

    Just pick you up on one point — filter out the pros from the amateurs? Why? It’s the so-called “pros” who’ve got us into this mess. And why not reward those who get the most news hits irrespective of their status. Then we would really see which pros could cut the mustard and earn a crust and which “amateurs” were the ones people wanted to read and listen to. This whole “professional journalist” ethos stinks to high heaven and we shouldn’t be looking to support and sustain it.

    In the UK I belong to an organisation called ALCS which rewards writers (novels, plays, etc) not on their individual creations but on the general spread of their creative output, and ALCS (Authors Licencing & Collection Society) is simply that — a conveyancing operation which distributes the money and performs no role as a censor or arbitrator.

  6. hp said on May 7th, 2008 at 6:46pm #

    It sure does seem like the ‘experts’ and their cohort bureaucrats, our ‘public servants,’ will be the be the death of us all.

  7. Chris Crass said on May 8th, 2008 at 8:30am #

    Seems to me it would be pretty easy to have a botnet swarm an article, driving the post count way up and letting you rake in the big money. I think a voting system would be more honest and reward better journalism. Or sensationalist pap.
    A system of open donations (as opposed to forced) seems to work pretty well when properly implemented. Since most people want to read news that reinforces their beliefs, accounts could be set up for different perspectives (leftist, rightist, etc…), and those accounts could be distributed amongst a group of websites based on voting for individual articles. Also, for purposes of rating an article or counting as a hit, only users who paid into the account and were signed in would count.
    For example, there could be a group account for DV, Harper’s, Mother Jones and what-not. In a given month they take in $10,000. An article posted on Harper’s gets 25,000 hits and is rated 75%. The total hits for all articles in the entire group is 400,000, and the average rating is 65%. It got 1/16th of the hits, so it gets 1/16th of the money, $625, minus 15% (difference between its rating and the highest possible rating, plus the difference between its rating and the average article rating [75 – 100 = -25 +10 = -15) to pay server costs. So, the author gets $531.25.
    Maybe there’s a more equitable way to do this. This is just off the top of my head, here.

  8. brs said on May 8th, 2008 at 9:18am #

    The so called journalists have spent the last 30 years cheering union busting, wage slashing and outsourcing of industrial jobs. There may be exceptions but that has been the overall tone of the vast majority between slanted news and open opinions. Now that their ox is being gored it is an oh so serious problem and everone should feel so sorry for them losing their jobs. 15000 in ten years nationwide; that is a drop in the bucket compared to industry. Look at packing houses; actual wages are lower than they were in 1979. That is actual hourly wage not buying power. The auto industry has been devastated; there have been 15000 jobs cut in periods of a month not 10 years. Yet even today I see articles where news writers express the need to stand up to the unions here and overseas. Sorry I cannot feel sorry for the people who slant and distort our news till there is no resemblance to reality. They can take their lumps like the rest of us and get over it.

  9. Rich Griffin said on May 8th, 2008 at 5:21pm #

    I still say, even though nobody is listening, that we have to simply become the media we want and stop bitching about the idiots who run our lives to the ground in the fourth estate these days.

  10. Rich Griffin said on May 8th, 2008 at 5:22pm #

    I still say, even though nobody is listening, that we have to simply become the media we want and stop bitching about the idiots who run our lives to the ground in the fourth estate these days. Create alternatives and get out there and educate joe & josephine q. public!

  11. Rich Griffin said on May 8th, 2008 at 5:26pm #

    Evie: progressives have to give up this constant drum beat of how stupid most americans are, you know, watching too much television, caring about the wrong things – give it up, and find ways of living with the need for celebrity and gossip. They will never ever move in a progressive direction if they are constantly being maligned and talked down to by elitists.

  12. evie said on May 8th, 2008 at 6:09pm #

    I’m not sure I would call most Americans stupid – I think the majority simply doesn’t care until something effects him/her personally or at least perceive it is effecting them – then they react.

    But whether the public is stupid or uncaring – I’m getting older and don’t have time to sugarcoat their pablum.

  13. Ang said on May 11th, 2008 at 1:16am #

    I’m afraid this idea doesn’t work for me at all. I’m tired of being forced to cough up money in advance of knowing exactly where it will be spent and end up watching it being used in ways that offend me or that I disagree with. And if the government is involved I already know what will happen. The same old same old. And while I’m glad you have certain publications that you believe in and support, I’m sorry but they aren’t my cup of tea. I don’t see any reason why I should have to support them.

    When I spend money on anything, I do it because it’s worth it to me to get the product, and the same goes for news and journalism. What I’ve seen over the last ten years on line is that journalism has exploded and there are people and organizations out there who are earning respect and credibility, which is a slow process but it sure is an honest one. That’s how it should be done. Pre-rewarding journalism through a vast indirect point system, kind of turns my stomach. I much prefer to retain my choice of where to put my dime based on who is putting out consistently good, pertinent journalism that is important to me and my life.

    I also took issue with the strange notion that so called non-professionals should be automatically excluded (and with a bit of a sooner the better attitude too). I strongly disagree and don’t see any particular reasoning behind that idea. The value of any individual writer’s work is up to me to decide and I’m not at all impressed with how widely read they may be, that’s really of no importance in terms of finding value in their way of seeing and writing about things.

    Like anything else that starts with little more than passion and serious intent, it often takes years of hard work getting little in return before a business of any kind begins to gain respect and recognition. When they consistently provide something of good quality that customers find valuable, things change and the money starts coming in. The internet, even more than street level store fronts, provides talented people with an even playing field and gives our future journalistic rising stars a shot that’s been denied many people who simply could never hope to put their good work out where anyone could see it. I say let those who earn our journalistic respect earn our news dollars, and let those dollars go out like they should, by the free choice of the buyer.

    Something else I see happening already is that the way we choose our news providers may be a lot different than the old concept of big news organizations dominating the news media. I can clearly see much value in the idea of providing subscription services where a staff of readers comb the vast sources of news out there and put together the best of picks from a large variety of news organizations without regard to loyalty or being tied into only taking news from certain sources. If I subscribe to such a news feeder service, they could pay into a fund such as you describe which allows them a certain number of articles per week or month or what have you. This would allow services that provide consistently excellent reporting to me, to save me a lot of time trying to hunt down what I’m interested in and instead serve it right to my inbox every day, even taking advantage of the ability to provide stories that cater to my particular interests. I would pay for that, it would be worth it. ICH does that now, albeit not at all formally, but I’ve already found it very handy and I appreciate it and donate to them.

    So there are more ways to go about this than placing another vague financial obligation on the public to get something that may or may not be of any value to them.